Leading The Legal Profession In Pro Bono Services

Friday, December 1, 2006 - 00:00

The Editor interviews The Hon. R. Fred Lewis, Chief Justice, Florida Supreme Court.

Editor: The Florida Supreme Court has led the legal profession in instituting mandatory pro bono reporting rules. Please tell our readers about the rules and the impetus for their promulgation.

Lewis: In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Florida's bench and bar conducted studies on how well the legal profession was meeting the legal needs of those who needed access to the judicial branch. Those studies demonstrated to us that we needed to do more.

In 1993, the Florida Supreme Court issued its Reporting Rules for gathering information each year to identify what legal needs are being met and which are not. The data we gather gives us the opportunity to match opportunities to better serve the communities around our state. The reporting requirements have also generated greater involvement.

Reporting does not resolve all issues related to meeting the public's legal needs, and that is something we need to continually address. Because the cost of obtaining legal services has escalated during the last 15 years, most legal services are priced beyond what many American families can pay. At the same time, more and more complexity is being added to our lives by the increasing number of regulations and laws at the federal, as well as state, level.

Editor: Some states have followed Florida in implementing mandatory pro bono reporting rules. Would you encourage other states to follow?

Lewis: Absolutely. It highlights the need for pro bono service. In the press of their day-to-day business, lawyers may take for granted the privilege of having access to our system of justice. The sense of justice can become much more real to a lawyer when helping a family in legal need to navigate through the court system or finding a legal remedy for someone who has been wronged and could not receive legal redress without pro bono services.

Editor: When did your commitment to public service begin?

Lewis: It started when I was a teenager working on children's programs through the YMCA. I found working with children to be so rewarding, especially when their home situation gave them no other place to go. I helped them by using some of my athletic abilities. I also helped them with reading and tried to encourage them along academic lines.

When I was growing up in the coal mining country of West Virginia, everyone said that if you had a problem you should visit a certain attorney who could help you. I thought that sounded good, and I continue to feel incredibly fortunate to have had the chance to do it.

After graduating from law school, I served on the board of trustees of Miami Children's Hospital. Through my public service, I have come to see the world through different eyes. It has helped me grow as a person and to understand what is important. Through that process I have helped counsel families with children with disabilities and helped create educational opportunities for children with multiple disabilities.

Editor: What is the focus of your volunteer work today?

Lewis: About eight years ago, I began working directly in our educational system. In June of this year, I created a Justice Teaching program in Florida. The program will attempt to match a legal professional lawyer or judge with every school in Florida. It is an ambitious program, and today we have 500 volunteers who make a real difference by visiting Florida schools. We serve as resources to help teachers so the students understand government structures and constitutional principles so that we all can learn to live together.

Many times, a volunteer visits a school three times a month. This provides the students a role model, which along with the curriculum can be helpful to students. The combination is invaluable to elementary school students who are early in their educational process as well as to high school students who are leaving the system.

Editor: Why would you encourage corporate counsel to contribute pro bono services?

Lewis: Corporate counsel have much to offer. They also have a lot to gain personally when they become involved in pro bono activities. It is also helpful from a business perspective. The bottom line of a corporation is only as good as the society in which it exists. That bottom line is enriched through the selection of lawyers who give of themselves. I find that most of those individuals who help the less fortunate are also the ones that give the most to their clients in all of their cases. There are many dynamics to pro bono activities and becoming involved in one's community. Not only is it personally rewarding, but also it is good business.

Editor: Should a law firm's involvement in the community be considered by corporate counsel when making a hiring decision?

Lewis: Absolutely. We need to strive for perfection in our lives. Perfection is not how much money you make or how many hours you work. It is about fully living in the world around you and doing what you can to make it a better place.

If you are not happy with what you are doing in life - that includes your personal, family and spiritual life - you are not going to be much of a lawyer because you are going to act like the flight attendant who ate lemons for breakfast and razor blades for lunch. Placing that into a professional perspective - the lawyers who spend all of their energy chasing dollars lose the real sense of being a lawyer in many other ways.

There is a great deal of hurt and pain in much of the world around us. Many lawyers, like me, can learn many lessons volunteering at children's hospitals. I also encourage lawyers to get involved with schools. Any way we can reach out to help children through education or health will truly impact the destiny of our nation. I mean that not only for our society in general but also for the next generation of lawyers.