Pity the pro se litigant. The citizen trying to defend herself at a child custody hearing or home foreclosure proceeding typically has no clue what to do in civil court. Contrast that with the skilled lawyer for the other party and the overburdened judge. “It’s sort of like the effect a chicken has on a chicken snake,” Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Jess H. Dickinson described at a recent conference on the topic. “It’s not a fair fight. Pro se litigants don’t win. They just don’t.”
Neither does the justice system. In addition to the glaring mismatch of the fight, other problems that pro se cases create include clogged court dockets and overwhelmed staff from the inevitable missteps and delays that occur, and potentially more expense for litigants with attorneys because cases take more time.
Yet courthouses throughout the country have experienced an explosion of pro se cases, experts say. Most of those litigants are too poor to afford attorneys, legal aid programs can handle only a fraction of the demand and, as you know, there’s no constitutional right to an attorney in civil court, unlike in criminal court. So they end up representing themselves.
How big is the problem? More than 4.3 million California residents represent themselves in civil court, that state has reported. In New York state, the figure is roughly 2.3 million, including the vast majority of tenants in eviction cases and parents in child support cases, and most homeowners in foreclosure proceedings. Most of them are winging it alone by necessity; if they had access to a lawyer, they would use one.
Nationally, the scope is unknown. Sidley Austin partner John Levi, chairman of the nonprofit Legal Services Corporation, the country’s biggest funder of civil legal aid for the poor, says he believes that 75 percent of need may be unmet. “This is becoming a stunningly important issue,” says Levi, who through LSC is trying to raise $40 million in private money to quantify the problem and implement programs to help solve it.
Much of the challenge is lack of legal aid dollars, but more pro bono lawyers could also step into the breach, Levi and others say.
In this issue, we look at the pro bono work of the nation’s biggest law firms. U.S.-based lawyers at those firms do well, averaging nearly 55 hours of pro bono work, our latest survey shows. At 15 firms, lawyers contributed 100 pro bono hours per lawyer or more. Michael D. Goldhaber details the results on page 50.
But pro bono is not as strong among lawyers based abroad who work for U.S. firms. This was the first year we tracked international pro bono at U.S. firms. Yes, circumstances are difficult in many regions, especially where intermediaries are lacking to connect law firms with needs. And yet, as more firms become global, international pro bono must be tracked and improved.
For our part, The American Lawyer will be expanding our pro bono coverage in our magazine and also online. If you’re part of an interesting pro bono project or have a related story idea, let us know at email@example.com.
As one inmate said of his pro bono attorneys from Arnold & Porter, who pushed for mental health ser­vices at a maximum-security prison: “They have given me something far more precious than I can explain: They have given me hope.”