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Seldom do global policy leaders and members of the legal profession come together to address systemic issues of access to justice. Such collaboration has been created between the Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor and Baker & McKenzie, as more than 40 lawyers in Baker & McKenzie’s offices in the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom work in support of the commission’s mandate. The commission, co-chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto and hosted by the United Nations Development Programme, was created in 2005 to explore how nations can reduce poverty through reforms that expand access to legal protections and economic rights. The initiative addresses the needs of the world’s poor by recognizing that poverty causes many people and communities to live outside of the rule of law, and seeks to influence developing country governments and donor agencies to invest greater resources in targeted legal reforms to reduce poverty. Other commission members include Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi, and former U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson. The commission has constituted five working groups that will present a report by year’s end to governments, donor agencies, and civil society organizations. The working groups will cover topics including access to justice and the rule of law, property rights, labor rights, legal mechanisms to empower business, and road maps for instituting reforms. Baker & McKenzie, as part of its pro bono and community service programs, made a major commitment to support the work of the commission. Under the leadership of New York partners Robert Lewis and Barry Metzger, the firm has been providing assistance to the Working Group on Access to Justice and the Rule of Law, chaired by commission member Lloyd Axworthy. Under the direction of Matthew Stephenson of Harvard Law School, more than 40 Baker & McKenzie attorneys have prepared four reports on the subjects of legal identity (with New York partner Carol Stubbelfield and Chicago partner Lynn Preece as team leaders), access to legal services (led by Miami partner Eugene Rostov), formal and informal justice systems (led by Australian partner Adrian Lawrence), and legal mechanisms for government accountability (led by Washington partner Peter Daub). LEGAL EXCLUSION Among the issues Baker & McKenzie attorneys addressed in the reports were ways to end the legal exclusion that occurs when large numbers of people lack identity papers required to access government services. Expanding access to legal services, through the extensive use of paralegals and lay advocates working with civil society groups, has been a major theme of the firm’s reports. The goal is to educate poor communities and individuals about their rights and provide an interface with the formal legal system. Baker & McKenzie lawyers also focused on mechanisms for making governments more accountable to their citizens through community oversight boards, grievance committees, and ombudsmen. Existing legal aid and public interest law programs in South Africa, Sierra Leone, and the Philippines have been pointed to as models worthy of replication. The work of civil society groups such as the Partnership for Transparency Fund in the field of anti-corruption and the work of the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee in legal literacy and lay advocacy also serve as models. The organized legal profession’s ambivalence in many countries about the expansion of legal aid has been openly addressed, and incentives created for active support by the profession for the significant expansion of such programs. The Baker & McKenzie reports, in addition to being used in preparation of the commission’s recommendations, are soon to be published by the commission as background papers. The commission has enthusiastically embraced the work of the law firm. “Baker & McKenzie brings its wide global reach and experience to the table,” says Axworthy. “Their knowledge of legal environments in dozens of countries around the world gives them a basis for providing technical input on legal barriers and frameworks for reform. At the end of the day, we hope our efforts will provide some new insights into legal access for the poor, and how to extend legal protections to marginalized populations.” Commenting on the experience, Metzger notes, “We hope that through our involvement we will help raise awareness of the legal challenges those in poverty face day-to-day, and assist Legal Empowerment in proposing solutions.” David Hackett, Baker & McKenzie’s North American managing partner, notes, “As a global law firm and citizens of the world, it is fitting that Baker & McKenzie supports Legal Empowerment in strengthening the rule of law to address global poverty. Baker & McKenzie is deeply committed to providing pro bono service and addressing the needs of the communities in which we live and practice.”
Angela C. Vigil is Baker & McKenzie’s director of pro bono and community service for North America. Based in the firm’s Miami office, she can be contacted at [email protected].

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