Their services usually come at a cost. But commentator and attorney William Holston says National Pro Bono week (Oct. 20-26) reminds us lawyers also put in many hours on a volunteer basis.
The first lawyer I knew in Dallas to do pro bono work was Judge Merrill Hartman. In 1982, Judge Hartman began showing up at a low-income daycare center to dispense free legal services, such as helping mothers collect child support. When asked why, Hartman said he knew he had a gift as an attorney and his services would likely be too expensive for people to afford. He added he had a responsibility as a Christian to love his fellow man. Later with his friend, Will Pryor, Hartman began the South Dallas Legal Clinic. Three lawyers took part in the first clinic held in early 1983. In 1997, the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program (DVAP) was created. DVAP now holds eleven clinics every month with volunteer lawyers answering legal questions. For Fiscal Year 2012 18,078 hours of free legal service were donated by the volunteers at DVAP. That doesn’t include the all the other agencies doing pro bono legal work.
I began doing pro bono work for Human Rights Initiative of North Texas in 1999. My first asylum case was for a young Guatemalan woman, whose husband had been assassinated by a death squad. I kept volunteering because representing immigrant survivors of violence was the most fulfilling thing I ever did. This year volunteer lawyers at HRI donated almost four million dollars in free legal services to our immigrant clients.
Over the years I’ve gotten to know lawyers who are enthusiastic providers of free legal services. Alicia Hernandez, a lawyer at DVAP says she “always had a soft spot for the underdog, and we represent a lot of underdogs in our line of work.” She says that representing people who have never gotten a break in life is “a constant reminder to be grateful for what you have. A whole lot of people are really suffering.”
Van Beckwith at Baker Botts volunteers with Advocates for Community Transformation to help neighborhoods identify and get rid of properties which have become centers of vice and crime. He took time from his busy practice to do this he said, “Because the doors at the courthouse do not open as easily for many in our city particularly when a neighbors need to complain about drug, prostitution and other illegal activity on their street. We can open the doors to the courthouse and help them seek and hopefully obtain justice.”
Some firms require their lawyers to do pro bono work. Patton Boggs, for instance, requires one hundred hours of pro bono services from their lawyers. The firms say they do it because it is the right thing to do and it strengthens their skills as lawyers. Some lawyers are inspired by their leaders. AT&T provides lawyers to 38 different programs across the United States - 13 in Texas alone, such as DVAP and HRI.
Most lawyers I know want to do pro bono work because it is what they envisioned doing when they started law school - using their legal skills for instance to help women escape the cycles of domestic violence with legal protection. We admire the fictional lawyer Atticus Finch who said our courts are the "great levelers." But our courts are only level if the most vulnerable have access to lawyers. Thankfully many lawyers heed that call.
William Holston is Executive Director of Human Rights Initiative of North Texas.
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