As we honored seven outstanding lawyers and judges at this year’s CBA/CBF Pro Bono and Public Service Awards Luncheon in July and celebrated the 25th Anniversary of the event, we continued a recent tradition by kicking things off with a song to help set the theme.

For this year, Bruce Hornsby’s classic from the 1980’s, The Way It Is, seemed particularly appropriate to capture 25 years of the inspiring work we celebrate at this event. 

Released back in 1986, the song was about the ongoing fight for civil rights and equality and pushing back on the belief of many at that time that racism and inequality in our country were just the way it is.

While events of the past few years have reminded us that our country still has much more work to do to remedy centuries of oppression and inequality, in the almost 40 years since that song was released, we have made significant progress as a country on this front.

And that progress has been possible both before and after that song was released because strong and dedicated people fought to make the ideals of our country a reality for everyone and would not accept that was just the way it is when that is not the case even when it put their lives at risk.

That theme from the song is equally on point in our collective quest to fulfill our nation’s promise of justice for all, where despite some notable progress in recent years, we are also falling far short of fulfilling that promise today.

Studies continue to show that more than half the low-income people seeking legal help from legal aid programs are turned away because there is not enough free and affordable legal help to go around. And perhaps more concerning, a recent national study found that less than half of lower and middle class Americans feel like they can count on the justice system to protect and enforce their rights, and less than 1/3 think people like them are treated fairly in the system.

Those are some jarring findings that show we remain a long way from living up to our ideals that everyone has equal access to justice and stands equal before the law, and there are real people with real lives behind those statistics.

Is that just the way it is?  Are we as a legal community just going to accept that level of inequality in access to justice?

Not if the honorees at this year’s Luncheon and for the 25 years before that have anything to say about it.

It may be the way it is right now, but it does not have to be, and as the trustees of the legal system, we cannot let it be. There is no one size fits all or quick fix, but as this year’s honorees are showing us firsthand through their actions each of us has the power to make a big difference in this cause.

We all can do our part to make this better when we use the power of our positions as lawyers, judges, and other legal professionals, and this famous quote from Arthur Ashe is a good way to think about our path forward.

Start where you are.

Use what you have.

Do what you can.

Whether we are in private practice, full time in public service, longtime pro bono champions, or just beginning, we can start where we are to make a difference.

And wherever we are in the profession or justice system, we all have the power of the unique knowledge, training, and experience to help people in a way that others cannot. If not us, who will take the lead to do this?

And lastly, we all can do a lot, and the unsung heroes honored this year and for 25 years now show that we all have the capacity to make a huge impact on our individual work and by coming together as a community through the CBF.

This year’s Luncheon gave us a great dose of inspiration to do just that, and this year’s Pro Bono Week is a great time for all of us to take that next step.