It is beyond debate that a very large number of people need legal representation and are not able to pay for it.
Depending on which statistics you believe, it appears that at least 75 percent of parties involved in dissolution of marriage litigation are self-represented. The results are courts clogged with matters that do not proceed efficiently and decisions probably based on less effective presentation of fact and argument. The same, though perhaps to a lesser degree, is true of other litigation, and also of non-litigation legal matters.
There are a host of initiatives trying to deal with this issue. The state Judicial Branch has a pro bono initiative, the Connecticut Bar Association has a standing committee on pro bono issues, and the University of Connecticut School of Law has a new program to provide representation of indigent clients in small claims matters, among others. They are all commendable and we hope they succeed in their missions.
But there is another way to solve the problem, and that is to start at the top of law firm hierarchies. Law firms and corporate legal departments need to understand and care about the problem. Many do already, but many do not. Leadership from the very top is what is needed. Every law firm and every corporate legal department should state explicitly that every attorney is expected to handle at least one pro bono matter every year or donate an amount equivalent to one hour’s billable rate to a recognized program that provides representation to indigent clients.
Representation need not be limited to litigation. There is a significant need for free legal help for non-profit organizations on matters such as real estate transactions, corporate governance, tax and employment matters. The Pro Bono Partnership in Hartford would be happy to match an attorney with an organization in need of such help. Veterans need help in many areas that are not litigation, such as benefits and estate planning. There is no lack of opportunity.
What is lacking is the clear message from the top that every attorney has an obligation to help with this issue. In their review of attorneys, every firm and every corporation should ask what pro bono work the attorney performed the previous year. It should be included on the written review form. It should be an expected part of each attorney’s performance. And if it is impossible, for some reason, the attorney should contribute to the organizations who perform such work.
Since the catastrophic decline of IOLTA, funding for legal aid organizations has been precarious. Though largely stable at the moment, it is never enough to fund all that needs to be done and it is never secure. Hypothetically, if half of the attorneys admitted to practice in Connecticut handled one pro bono matter each year and the other half donated the equivalent of one billable hour to legal aid organizations, the result would probably be a huge, heart-warming increase in meeting the legal needs of our under-served population. It is something to think about — it can and should happen, and the partners in charge of firms and corporate legal departments can make it happen. •