Wisconsin Lawyer: President's Message: Justice for Poor People:

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    President's Message: Justice for Poor People

    Converging studies and conferences seek to measure the scope of unmet civil legal needs of poor people and how to fill those needs. Now that we know where we are, where do we go from here?

    Steve Levine

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    Wisconsin LawyerWisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 80, No. 4, April 2007

    Steve Levine Last month I attended the first Equal Justice Conference, which was held at Marquette Law School in Milwaukee and was sponsored by the State Bar, the U.W. and Marquette law schools, and the Quarles & Brady and Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek law firms. The purpose of the conference was to explore methods of providing and funding civil legal services for people who cannot afford them.

    The conference was held at the same time as the Bar's Access to Justice Committee issued its report on long-range methods of meeting the legal needs of poor people (see "Bridging the Justice Gap: Gauging the Public's Unmet Civil Legal Needs" in this issue) and as another committee was finalizing its recommendations for the Board of Governors on how to respond to the Wisconsin Supreme Court's 2005 WisTAF assessment. All of these events raise long-term and short-term questions concerning how to meet legal needs of poor people, lawyers' responsibility in doing so, and the limits of supreme court authority.

    Speakers and panels at the Equal Justice Conference discussed the role of law school clinical programs, partnerships between the bar and legal aid programs, nontraditional legal service delivery systems (including the use of nonlawyers to provide some legal services), whether there is a constitutional right to counsel in civil cases, and methods of funding legal services - from the legislature to private fundraising to the supreme court's controversial WisTAF assessment. Regardless of how we feel about the court's WisTAF assessment, I believe we all have a moral obligation regarding pro bono - to do it if we can, to fund it if we practice in an area that is not easily translatable to serving people who cannot afford legal services.

    First, the short-term question: What to do about the supreme court's WisTAF assessment. At its March meeting the Board of Governors considered a report from a special committee created to suggest responses to the assessment. The Board adopted two of the committee's suggestions and voted to petition the court to make these changes to the WisTAF rule: to allow lawyers the option of paying the $50 assessment to the legal services organization of their choice rather than to WisTAF, and to include judges in the assessment.

    Whether and to what extent the petition will succeed is a matter of speculation, but after listening to all viewpoints, my views on the WisTAF assessment have not changed much. I believe that pro bono should remain a moral obligation to be decided by each lawyer according to his or her conscience - and not by the power of the supreme court. Paying a mandatory assessment is not a pro bono act.

    What contribution can the Bar make in the long term? My own vision would be to establish a State Bar Pro Bono Trust Fund _an endowment composed of voluntary contributions administered by an independent board appointed by the State Bar president and confirmed by the Board of Governors, that would distribute funds to groups that provide civil legal services for poor people. It might also be wise - for efficiency and to coordinate the distribution of funds - to roll existing pro bono funding groups into a State Bar pro bono fund, if they wish. Funding a State Bar Pro Bono Trust Fund will take time and require as many lawyers as possible to step up with sizeable contributions. If $1,000 could be raised for every lawyer in Wisconsin, an endowment of more than $15 million could be the basis for a gift that keeps on giving - and it would show the supreme court that the bar can do the right thing without the need for a WisTAF assessment.

    A discussion of pro bono requires acknowledging the many Wisconsin lawyers who contribute their time and money to the cause of providing civil legal services to people who cannot afford them - staff attorneys at legal services groups, private practitioners who take on pro bono cases, law professors who supervise student legal clinics, and lawyers who contribute time and money to such groups as the Equal Justice Fund, WisTAF, the Wisconsin Law Foundation, and local bar associations.

    Last November I was privileged to attend the ceremony at which Wisconsin Judicare's Pro Bono Director Marka Henkelman received the Equal Justice Fund's Distinguished Service Award and Legal Action of Wisconsin's John Ebbott received the Fund's Howard B. Eisenberg Lifetime Achievement Award. There are many lawyers in Wisconsin who every day live out their passion of bringing justice to those most in need. Thanks to all of you who heed the call.

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