Immigration and Access to Justice: A Much Bigger Problem Than It Needs to Be

People come to America for the same basic reasons now as they have from the time of our nation’s founding: to seek economic opportunity and the American dream, to join their families, or to flee persecution or terror. We truly are a nation of immigrants, and from the start of our country to today, immigrants have played integral roles in our economy and in our communities.

Even if we had a well thought out and well-functioning immigration system that reflects these fundamental truths which no rational observer would mistake our current system for immigrants would have some unique needs for legal help, and many would also face additional challenges due to the language and cultural barriers they often confront.* Unfortunately, however, immigrants face far greater access to justice challenges today because we have a broken immigration system. These added challenges are unnecessary and ultimately counterproductive for all concerned, and expanding immigration enforcement without fixing the underlying systemic flaws will only make things worse.

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Our Language Problem

If You See Something, Do Something!

As lawyers trained to worship at the altar of precedent, there are all kinds of bad habits we can pick up without even thinking about them. There of course are many legal principles we continue to follow today because they are critical underpinnings of our society that rightly have stood the test of time the rule of law and the fundamentals of our Constitution, for example. There unfortunately also is a lot of legal terminology and procedure that we continue to use today for a very different reason: because it is just the way we always have done it. And breaking out of that default pattern is one of the easiest steps we all can take right now to improve access to justice.

I got a great lesson on this early in my legal career.

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A New Year’s Resolution for the Legal Profession: Stop Calling People Non-lawyers!

Every once in a while I will read an article or hear a speech that causes me to recognize I’ve been acting like a fool in one way or another. And I am certain I have many more opportunities ahead of me for that kind of recognition. A great example of this phenomenon occurred for me not long ago when I heard Jordan Furlong, a very perceptive analyst of the legal market and the future of our profession, note that we are the only profession who describes everyone who is not one of us as a non.

He’s right. You don’t hear doctors calling everyone else in the medical field non-doctors, or CPAs calling their colleagues non-CPAs. In fact, it sounds absurd to even imagine them or any other professionals doing that. Yet that’s exactly what we do as lawyers, and I have certainly been guilty of my share of it over the years.

While I have no idea how we got started using the non-lawyer expression, and I don’t think it is something lawyers do with any ill will, it is pretty offensive when you think about it. And it betrays a shortsighted and artificially limiting mindset that has a number of negative consequences for access to justice, the future of our profession, and our public image as lawyers.

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What Makes a Good Charity?

The eminent Peter Drucker famously said, There is nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency something that should not be done at all. Mistaking efficiency for effectiveness is a danger for any organization, and particularly so for nonprofits. Yet that is exactly what most of the entities that give advice about what makes a good charity tend to do, often compounding their error by utilizing misleading standards for determining efficiency. There is a better way.

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The Day After€¦

History was going to be made one way or another in last night’s Presidential election, and a lot will be written today and in the coming weeks about what it all means now that we know the outcome. While I’ll leave it others to opine on the larger consequences of last night’s verdict,* there is one question of particular import for those of us in the legal community: what does it mean for access to justice?

The answer to that question largely remains to be written, and as always has been true, our legal community will have a big say in what the answer will be. While we don’t yet know to what degree a President Trump will prioritize access to justice in his Administration, there is a lot that we do know, and some fundamental facts are just as true this morning and going forward as they were before the election.

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Pro Bono and the Power of Proximity

Last year at this time I kicked off the Bobservations series with what then seemed like a great idea to me: seven pro bono related posts in one week, one post for each day of Pro Bono Week 2015. I ultimately succeeded in that quest, but may have been the only person who actually read all of them. So I am not going to try that again this year. Instead, I want to focus on one of the key pro bono themes I referenced in last year’s series the power of proximity as it sets a great tone for this year’s CBA/CBF Pro Bono Week and its theme of Caring, One Person at a Time.

Proximity in this context is drawn from the great Bryan Stevenson and refers to the importance of getting closer to the problems that low-income and disadvantaged people experience in the justice system. While there of course are many other reasons that pro bono plays a critical role in our profession and in our communities, proximity is the most underrated and arguably the most powerful benefit of pro bono for all concerned.

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The Future Ain’t What It Used to Be

The legendary Yogi Berra was the source of so many great quotes that they became the source for a whole book, and his quote about the future is a very fitting title for my concluding post in the legal future series I kicked off back in January.

When it comes to the legal profession and access to justice, the future surely does look a lot different than it would have even a few years ago, and that is largely a good thing. While many of us face new professional challenges today that were not present ten years ago, we all have promising opportunities that could fundamentally change access to justice for the better while making for a happier, healthier and more effective legal profession for many years to come.

Another sports legend, Wayne Gretzky, offers us great advice as we look out towards that future: skate to where the puck is going, not where the puck has been.

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And the #1 Reason People Don’t Have a Lawyer When They Need One Is€¦

With children and young people everywhere getting ready to head back to school, I thought I’d start today’s post with a short pop quiz:

Name the #1 reason why people don’t use lawyers when they encounter a legal issue:

A.     Believe it wouldn’t make any difference

B.     Too expensive/can’t afford it

C.     Don’t recognize a need for legal advice

D.    Don’t know how or where to find one

E.     Determined to handle it on their own

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People Have the Power

Monday was the CBA and CBF’s 18th Annual Pro Bono and Public Service Awards Luncheon, where about 700 attendees helped us honor seven unsung heroes of our profession who make us all proud to be part of Chicago’s legal community. This was the third year that we started the Luncheon with a song to help set a theme for the day, and this year’s song was Patti Smith’s classic, People Have the Power. The song is a particularly fitting tribute to the exemplary pro bono and public service work we celebrate at the Luncheon and highlights two important themes in the ongoing quest to ensure the justice system is truly fair and accessible for everyone.

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Which Way Is the Camera on Our Phone Facing?

A picture can paint a thousand words. And sometimes a good metaphor or analogy can have an even greater impact. I witnessed a great example of that a few weeks ago when Lisa Foster, the Director of the Department of Justice’s Office for Access to Justice, took out her smart phone and used it as a metaphor for the justice system as the frame for some really thought-provoking remarks.

Ms. Foster demonstrated how she could use the camera on her phone to point it one way and take a selfie, or turn it the other direction and take a picture of the people in front of her. In the justice system, she keenly noted, we take selfies. That is, we look at the system from the perspective of the lawyers, judges and court personnel who are inside of it, not from the perspective of the people who rely on the system for access to justice.

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