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Equal justice advances in pro bono efforts across the nation

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Pro Bono Initiative

“Lawyers have a license to practice law, a monopoly on certain services. But for that privilege and status, lawyers have an obligation to provide legal services to those without the wherewithal to pay, to respond to needs outside themselves, to help repair tears in their communities.” —U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

“Pro bono is addictive,” said Marissa LaVette, assistant staff counsel at the ABA’s Center for Pro Bono. “Once you do it—and you might start out small—you see how you help someone and you want to do more and more and expand on that.”

Pro bono also plays a large part in our society and is needed to ensure that all people are served and that justice exists for everyone in all communities. This is something that sets the legal profession apart from other fields. The ABA Model Rule 6.1 states that every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay and suggests that attorneys devote at least 50 hours annually to public legal services.

How much can you help as a student? Actually, more than you may realize. The ABA has programs that can let you begin dipping your toes into the pro bono waters.

You can start online

Through the ABA Center for Pro Bono, attorneys are encouraged to perform pro bono work, policies are promoted that encourage pro bono services, and projects are created that focus on pro bono work.

Free Legal Answers is one of the center’s big projects, and it aids people throughout the nation who have civil legal questions. The FLA is an online walk-in legal clinic where users log into the portal and ask their questions to volunteer attorneys. The volunteers find questions they can answer, or research, to help the client.

As a law student, you can likely get involved in the FLA by researching issues and drafting answers that can be reviewed by local attorneys or school pro bono coordinators before you submit them. Because it’s an online portal, students and attorneys can work from anywhere they have a computer or tablet and an internet connection.

Andrew Fischman, a 2L at the University of Arkansas School of Law, volunteers his time with the FLA through his school. “This was an excellent introduction to pro bono,” he said. “It provided an opportunity for hands-on volunteer work under the supervision of experienced attorneys and showed me a fantastic volunteer activity I can engage in throughout my legal career. Particularly in Arkansas, where many of us are in rural locations, Free Legal Answers provides an especially needed service.”

LaVette says the center’s driving goal is to provide assistance and support to pro bono programs. The center works with legal aid, legal services, bar associations, and law schools across the country to help with anything they need, whether it’s getting a pro bono program off the ground or improving its services.

Join a national effort

One of the larger initiatives is the National Celebration of Pro Bono that occurs each October, which has been in place for more than a decade. This is a grassroots effort; although the ABA helps to organize and track it, individual organizations sponsor events in their own cities. The celebration encourages organizations across the country to hold events that recognize pro bono attorneys, encourage attorneys to get involved, and just bring attention to the need for pro bono work.

Last year alone, there were more than 1,400 events nationwide, with at least one event in every state. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, who was the celebration’s honorary chair, did a Q&A session at Georgetown University Law Center about the importance of pro bono work. These events are tracked on a big map at www.celebrateprobono.org.

“I think that pro bono, and our work, is really important for law students because one of our main goals in working with students is to start early and get in the habit of doing pro bono work now while you’re in law school,” she said. “Then once they get out of school, students find their passion for what kind of pro bono work they want to do. There’s such a need for it, and after you graduate, you already have that drive and want to find the time to fit it in.”

LaVette noted that you can get involved in the celebration by working with your pro bono program at your law school and hosting events during the celebration. Such events as pro bono fairs and working with outside legal services are popular with law schools.

A conference to remember

Another way you can get involved in pro bono work is through the Equal Justice Conference. Each year, this conference brings together pro bono coordinators, stakeholders, and attorneys from across the country, including legal aid public defenders and pro bono organizations.

Last year’s conference hosted more than 1,100 attendees, which included law students, as components of law school pro bono are integrated during the conference. Many students used this as a networking opportunity while learning about the opportunities for pro bono and legal aid volunteer work.

EJC 2020 will take place May 7 in Atlanta.

Additionally, LaVette noted that there are internship opportunities periodically throughout the year at the ABA’s Center for Pro Bono, including research and other related opportunities that can arise. These positions are remote, so students can help from anywhere in the nation. And, once you’ve graduated, there are opportunities for new attorneys to be involved in the committee, either as a liaison or with crafting initiatives and policies for the center.

To get involved in any of these pro bono opportunities, contact LaVette at marissa.lavette@american… or 312/988-5775. Visit www.abaprobono.org for additional resources or to join discussion groups and listservs. The center also maintains a law school directory on the website where you can view opportunities or see which pro bono model is used.

Also, connect with like-minded students and attorneys on Twitter at @abactrprobono and the center’s Facebook page, facebook.com/ABAProBono. Don’t forget to communicate with your school’s pro bono coordinator, too.

Need more motivation to get started? Consider the words of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor: “We educated, privileged lawyers have a professional and moral duty to represent the underrepresented in our society, to ensure that justice exists for all, both legal and economic justice.”

Dayna Maeder Dayna Maeder is a 3L at Florida State University College of Law and Student Editor for the Law Student Division. She graduated Summa Cum Laude from the University of Central Florida where she studied English and mass communications, and went on to earn her Master’s in Education. Dayna is a former journalist who edited and wrote articles for Houston Chronicle, Chicago Tribune and other major newspapers and magazines throughout the nation. In her spare time, she enjoys spending time with her family, skydiving, playing poker and reading novels. She will be graduating in December 2019.