Letter From The President Of The New York County Lawyers' Association

2004-03-01 01:00

To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:

Our profession has a long, proud and unparalleled history of volunteerism. In recent years, there has been a growing concern that the New York State Unified Court System (UCS) would propose a mandatory pro bono requirement for New York attorneys. I am pleased to report that this concern was dispelled with the release in January 2004 of the UCS Report, The Future of Pro Bono in New York, Volume Two: Report and Recommendations from UCS's Pro Bono Convocation.

In 2002, the UCS hosted four Pro Bono Convocations around the State "to brainstorm issues and develop tangible, feasible ideas and strategies for expanding pro bono service in New York." Many bar leaders, educators, jurists and interested persons from around the country were invited to participate. I had the privilege of serving as a facilitator during one of the discussion groups and I came away from the Convocation with a renewed sense of pride at the awesome commitment of our profession to helping those in need.

The Report is the work of numerous participants and is based on these Convocations. It is a reasoned and well-crafted articulation of the enormous need for help in achieving access to justice for our lower-income citizens and makes concrete recommendations designed to increase the bar's already substantial contributions. As I read the Report, I was gratified to be reminded that a statewide survey of lawyers in 2002 found that nearly one-half of all attorneys in New York provided some pro bono activities during the year - a startlingly high percentage.

Upon examination of the accessibility of legal services to the poor, the Report acknowledges:

• A need exists to increase pro bono services in New York State.

• A formal statewide initiative is necessary and desirable.

• All stakeholders should be involved in a statewide program developed to expand pro bono.

• The judiciary should have a significant role in the statewide program, but local leadership, design, implementation and control are essential for a comprehensive and workable program.

• Pro bono service should be voluntary.

This last point - that pro bono service should be voluntary - is extremely important, for our focus needs to be on how best to meet the needs of those who are unable to protect themselves. Without the distraction of mandatory pro bono service, we can fully turn our attention to the greater issues: how, within the structure of our proud, voluntary scheme, our profession can do more, and what the proper role of society, as opposed to our profession, is in meeting the needs of the poor.

The Report's recommendations include:

• Local bar action committees throughout New York State, supported by a statewide Standing Committee on Pro Bono, should create local pro bono action plans.

• The Judiciary should play a significant role in the development of educational recruitment and recognition programs for lawyers.

• Court-based initiatives should be established to facilitate court access for litigants with pro bono attorneys.

Although NYCLA will submit detailed comments on these and other recommendations to the Office of Court Administration, let me offer a few preliminary responses now. I fully concur with the Report's statement that, "Ensuring all New Yorkers access to justice and to the justice system will require commitment, innovation and great effort." However, that comment belies the larger issue: it is society's responsibility, not that of any individual profession, to meet the needs of the downtrodden and less fortunate. Certainly, the legal profession has played a unique role throughout history in addressing the legal needs of the poor. But even if our profession increases its already remarkable level of pro bono representation, without greater funding for legal services groups and pro bono activities, there can only be a marginal improvement in helping those in need.

I have previously suggested that we need increased funding for organizations providing legal services to the poor as well as for individuals relying upon volunteer lawyers. At the risk of seeming unrealistic in the face of serious fiscal challenges, I renew that plea, for the Report clearly illustrates that we also face a growing access-to-justice crisis that demands our attention. And increased funding must come from both the private and public sectors. The Report's recommendations are useful and helpful, but society as a whole must recognize and meet its responsibility to make justice for all a reality in America. As Justice Lucindo Suarez eloquently stated in NYCLA v. New York, "Equal access to justice should not be a ceremonial platitude, but a perpetual pledge vigilantly guarded."


Michael Miller