What really motivates me to do pro bono work are the people who need our help and how they will fare if they do not get it. People like “Molly” and “John.” Their story helps show why pro bono work is not only a nice thing to do – but a critical duty of ours as attorneys.
The Story of Molly and John
Molly began dating John shortly after high school. They met working at a coffee shop. They moved in together and had a baby. Molly started taking classes at MATC to be a physician assistant. John watched their baby while Molly went to school.
Rebecca E. Rapp, Chicago 2000, is general counsel and chief privacy officer at Great Lakes Higher Education Corp., Madison. She previously served as a Dane County Circuit Court judge and an assistant attorney general at the Wisconsin Department of Justice. This column is based on an address she recently gave to the Dane County Bar Association’s annual pro bono breakfast.
Things were progressing nicely … until they weren’t. John became withdrawn and moody after Molly started school. He accused Molly of “gallivanting” or “whoring” around when she came home from class, often getting in her face. He threw things toward her – one time nearly missing her head with a greasy plate, still coated with eggs from breakfast. And then one day John grabbed Molly and shoved her up against the wall, all while hurling insults and profanities at her.
The neighbors had heard insults and profanities coming from the apartment before. But one of Molly’s neighbors, herself a domestic-violence survivor, called the police after hearing the loud sound of Molly being shoved against the wall. John was arrested.
And here’s where the story really begins.
You see, John’s arrest was not the end of a bad chapter in Molly’s life, it was the start of a tale of woe with a very real possibility of a nightmarish end for Molly and her baby.
Molly did not want John to be criminally charged and even downplayed what happened to police. Still, Molly wanted John to move out. Molly went to her landlord. But her landlord told her it was not possible to get John off the lease or to keep John from living there. John continued stopping by the apartment – coming in, insulting Molly, and threatening to take Molly to court to obtain “full custody” and “child support.”
Molly’s neighbor always managed to get John to leave and eventually convinced Molly to file for a restraining order. By then, however, the landlord was fed up. He gave Molly an eviction notice – citing John’s “criminal behavior” and his presumption that Molly could not pay rent on her own. Molly missed work and school as she looked for child care, went to court, and searched for a new place to live. She was on the verge of dropping out of school and giving up on the stability getting a degree could have given her daughter and her.
So what happens next? That depends in no small part on us – the pro bono bar.
Acting to Enforce Rights and Protections
Molly has legal rights and protections that could keep her child and her from being toppled, buried by an avalanche of legal issues. But those rights and protections are not automatic. Justice is not self-effectuating. It requires action; and, often, not action by just anyone, but action specifically by us.
We lawyers have created an incredibly complex, adversarial justice system full of complicated procedures, rigid deadlines, precedent, legal briefs, evidentiary requirements, and … arcane Latin phrases. Many people do not know that their problems are legal problems with legal solutions. And, even for the people who are lucky enough to know that they have a legal issue and who are able to pursue a legal claim, there is no question that people fare far better when they have a lawyer. Going it alone is often tantamount to not going at all.
But we limit people's ability to be represented. We have given ourselves a monopoly. We require people to hire us if they want representation. We don't let people be represented by their friends, their family, their ministers, their advocates, or even a paralegal – regardless of how helpful such representation could be. (Molly, for example, could not be represented by her neighbor even though her neighbor had gotten a restraining order before and demonstrated her ability to help Molly with John.) And we charge lots of money for our services. We are expensive by any measure, even for large companies like the one I work at; but particularly and prohibitively so for the unemployed, the working poor, and even the middle class.
Justice is not self-effectuating. It requires action; and, often, not action by just anyone, but action specifically by us.
And herein lies not just the importance of – but our duty to do – pro bono work. We cannot have our cake and eat it too. If we want to maintain our monopoly in this incredibly complex system of ours, if we want ours to be the only representation people may have, we need to ensure that people are able to obtain the legal representation justice depends on and requires. That is our duty – part of the bargain we made by giving ourselves a monopoly and limiting people’s ability to be represented. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg explained:
“Lawyers have a license to practice law, a monopoly on certain services. But for that privilege and status, lawyers have an obligation to provide services to those without the wherewithal to pay, to respond to those in need outside themselves, to help repair tears in their communities.”
Three Ways to Help Pro Bono Clients
This is not just some theoretical duty to be pondered here. We simply cannot just content ourselves by having had this discussion. We need to act. Here are three ways – all of which start with treating pro bono clients with the same thoughtfulness, regard, and innovativeness we give paying clients:
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1) We must apply business-development principles to our pro bono work. We spend lots of time developing business plans to attract paying clients. We must spend equal energy figuring out how to attract and serve pro bono clients – many of whom may not even know their problems are legal ones. Technology developments like mobile apps are part of the solution but not all of it. They are most effective when coupled with real-life support. Partnerships with libraries, healthcare providers, and other social services agencies – which potential clients trust and which can help potential clients spot issues, find resources, and even use mobile apps – are proving particularly effective at connecting potential pro bono clients with legal resources.
2) We must provide pro bono clients good customer service. The law is a service industry, and we go to great lengths to accommodate paying clients. Pro bono clients deserve the same accommodation. We need to think about the transportation, work schedule, child care, and other such issues many pro bono clients face, which create scheduling issues more daunting and fraught than those of the busiest CEO. One particularly promising development in this regard is a Justice Bus that goes to clients. There is already one in Milwaukee. Jane Appleby and Marsha Mansfield are spearheading efforts to start one in Dane County.
3) We must constantly measure, learn from, and improve our pro bono efforts. Billable hours and invoicing provide a measure of effectiveness for paying clients. We need to develop other metrics to evaluate whether pro bono programs are reaching clients, effectively deploying limited pro bono resources, and truly enhancing access to justice. And we need to learn from the data and continue to modify and improve – innovate – our efforts based on what we find. I have some experience with this. Research has shown that limited scope representation is more effective when clients are followed up with, even by text message, shortly after their appointments. We have implemented such follow-up at Great Lakes’ limited scope legal clinic – we follow up with clients who say they want us to, and Veronica Vega, who works at Vera Court, does too. There are a whole host of areas that call out for such empirical review. For example, the recent supreme court rules allowing limited scope representation and pro bono participation by corporate counsel licensed out of state. Have these rules increased pro bono participation? If not, why not? Are there certain types of clients or legal issues that benefit more than others from limited scope representation? If so, whom and what? And what can we do with all this information?
We are privileged to be part of a storied profession that not only practices in the justice system but that truly – and, as a result of our licensing requirements, singularly – embodies it. With this privilege comes responsibility – a responsibility to ensure that the justice system is not an exclusive club, reserved for people who can pay our fees, but instead is truly the forum for all that our Constitution demands and our society depends on.
If we ignore this responsibility, we will effectively bar people like Molly from participating in the justice system and, in turn, getting justice. Such exclusion will not only harm people like Molly, who so desperately need our help. It will also undercut the fabric of society and faith in the justice system on which our own position and livelihood depends. Our needs ultimately cannot be separated from those of our pro bono clients. Their justice is ours.
So what happened to Molly? Did she get the restraining order? Did she maintain housing? Did she finish school? I’m not going to tell you. For these are all really questions for you. How do you want the story to end? What do you want to happen to Molly and her child? And what are you going to do about it?
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Who is your biggest influence as an attorney?
My dad, an attorney in my hometown of Quincy, Ill. I talk to my dad nearly every day. He has the strong analytical and communication skills, honesty, and common sense that are “must haves” for good lawyering. But he taught me that truly great lawyering requires something more: empathy and the active listening that preconditions it.
We cannot fully serve our clients, persuade tribunals, or outwit our opponents unless we truly understand where each is coming from and what motivates them. And, when one truly listens and empathizes, it quickly becomes clear how scary and intimidating the justice system is to nearly everyone – from the uneducated and inexperienced criminal defendant to the sophisticated and indemnified corporate officer. This is one reason, among many, why access to justice – and ensuring that everyone has a good attorney to help them navigate the justice system – is so important to me (and my dad).
Rebecca E. Rapp, Great Lakes Higher Education Corp., Madison.
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