MEGservationsGood for Everyone: Pro Bono and Veggies Go Mainstream

By Margaret Benson | Executive Director, Chicago Volunteer Legal Services

Pro bono is like veganism. Although it’s good for you and benefits society, people have been skeptical. But now both practices are popular enough that even people who don’t do them claim they do.

It wasn’t always that way. Back in the stone ages of the legal profession, before email, business processes and data analytics, many law firms didn’t have much interest in providing direct legal services to low-income clients. While some handled pro bono law reform cases through organizations like the ACLU and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, most firms didn’t think their attorneys should handle direct legal services for poor people.

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Voluntary Bar Associations and Adapting to a Changing World

Bob Glaves is my friend and mentor. So, while skeptical, I grant him the benefit of the doubt when he tells me that the Bobservations readership numbers millions, spanning continents. “Huge and fabulous and, many people are saying, the best ever,” Bob observes of Bobservations.

In any event Bob’s taking a well-deserved break. He’s asked me to contribute a post. Presently, I believe Bob is traipsing about the Wisconsin woodlands. I hope he’s relaxed of mind and surely not reliving the double-doink, ad nauseam.

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What’s Your Story?

When someone asks us what we do as lawyers and legal professionals, what story do we tell them? Do we frame the answer in the loftier ideals of our profession and the good we do in the world, or in the day-to-day grind that the practice of law sometimes can feel like?

That question was the driving force behind the selection of this year’s theme song at the CBA and CBF’s 21st Annual Pro Bono and Public Service Awards Luncheon last week, The Story by Brandi Carlile.

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Are You Ready for Some Football?

Jim Harbaugh came through town last week, but not on a recruiting trip for Michigan. He was here in his role as a member of the Leaders Council for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), where he joined in a fitting tribute to LSC’s board chair and long-time champion for the cause, John Levi.

In the course of his heartfelt toast to Levi, Coach Harbaugh used a football analogy to illustrate what it means when someone has to fend for themselves in a contested court case: it is like a game where one team has to play without helmets and pads. You don’t have to stretch your imagination to recognize that team would get routed and end up with some serious injuries.

I thought this was a great analogy that most everyday Americans can connect to and understand, and it also offers an interesting framework for tackling the broader barriers to equal access to justice.

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The Affordability Action Plan

Over the course of the past several months, I’ve used this blog to discuss four big issues our legal profession needs to address to carry out my 2019 Resolution: to tackle our affordability problem for everyday people. The common denominator on these issues is that the solutions to making legal services more affordable and accessible to the middle class are almost entirely within our power as a profession and court system. 

To paraphrase a famous saying, we have met the enemy, and it is us. The following, interconnected action plan can help us defeat that enemy and strike a major blow for access to justice in the process.

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What Do Courts Have to Do with the Affordability of Legal Services?

Quite a lot, as a matter of fact. The fundamental mission of the courts is to deliver justice for all by protecting rights and liberties, upholding the rule of law, and serving as fair and neutral arbiters to resolve disputes. Promoting affordable legal representation is a central part of fulfilling that mission, yet some of the key steps to doing so are too often overlooked by courts today.

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Uber, Taxis and the Legal Market

Take a trip down bad memory lane to about ten years ago when you needed to get a cab but were not in a place where taxis tend to be plentiful on the street. Remember what that was like?

Hold that thought for a moment, and now think of what it is like today for someone who is looking for a lawyer and doesn’t know where to turn. While it is sure to get most lawyers upset to be compared to the taxi industry, the similarities in these two market failures are striking. We can write a different script for what happens in the legal market but need to start now.

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What Are We Selling?

It seems a simple question to ask, but one we do not think enough about in law and too often answer incorrectly. Getting that answer right is the first essential step towards carrying out my New
Year’s Resolution for 2019
for the legal profession to tackle our affordability problem for everyday people.

Two recent commentaries in the New York Times and the Atlantic challenge us to re-examine our profession’s longstanding assumptions on this question, and offer a good jumping off point for discussion.

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A Make or Break Issue for Access to Justice

Whether an issue is a challenge or an opportunity is often simply a matter of perception. As Winston Churchill once put it, “The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity, the optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty.” Over the CBF’s first 70 years, we have taken pride in confronting challenges head on and converting them into opportunities, and that has led to a number of significant innovations and long-term improvements in access to justice.

But sometimes an issue really is both a challenge and an opportunity at the same time. There is one such issue for access to justice looking ahead, a central one where our legal community will need to lead the way in striking the right balance if we are to reach the ultimate goal of a legal system that is truly fair and accessible for all.

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2019 Resolution—Time to Tackle our Affordability Problem for Everyday People

Lawyers often joke that they couldn’t afford themselves if they ran into a serious legal problem. While that is (usually) an exaggeration when a lawyer says it, it reflects a reality we all know to be true for most people in our community. It was not always like this, but somewhere along the way our profession managed to price the proverbial “regular guy” out of the market for most legal services.

As lawyers, we like to think of ourselves as problem solvers. This time the problem is us, and in 2019 we all need to make it a priority to solve it.

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