By Ericka Curran, Assistant Professor of Professional Skills
The phone rang. I cringed as I answered.
“Oh please don’t cancel on us tonight,” I hoped, knowing we had taken four extra clients because I thought we had the extra help.
At 6 p.m., I dreaded who might be on the line. Reluctantly, I took the call.
“I won’t be able to make it to your pro bono event tonight after all,” the attorney, a would-be volunteer, said. “Something came up. Maybe next time. I do really enjoy it.”
“They’ve been waiting weeks for this chance to get some legal advice,” I thought. “Down one attorney either means an extra hour for the other volunteers, or we turn people away who are counting on our help.”
The choice was already made.
I dug into my purse for money to buy pizza for our team. Shorthanded, we were going to need extra food. I was grateful for the attorneys who are already streaming in, rolling up their sleeves and getting ready to work. However, I realize even when no one cancels there’s never enough help.
The next call came in. This time it was a student volunteer.
“Hi. Yeah. I am not going to be able to come tonight because it turns out I actually have a paper due and I’m not finished,” the student said.
I take note: Take that student off the list. I was angry, stressed, disappointed. But inside, I knew I was that law student, only maybe worse …
I remember my own shameful phone call to my legal aid supervisor when I was an intern:
“I am so sorry, but it turns out I got tickets to the Alanis Morissette concert and I am not going to be able to come in this Friday,” I said excitedly, with maybe a touch of embarrassment. “I was so lucky to get those tickets. My boyfriend and I were on hold all day.”
Isn’t it ironic — don’t you think?
And, no, I am not ashamed about my taste in music. I enjoy “One Hand in my Pocket.” I’m not even entirely sure I wouldn’t jump in line for tickets if she mounted a comeback tour today.
I am ashamed I didn’t realize what a huge responsibility and privilege pro bono work really is. I certainly didn’t realize the attorney I was volunteering to assist probably could have worked the case more quickly by herself AND she was taking time out of her schedule to mentor and supervise me on pro bono cases. I even thought of myself as “extra help.”
As a law student and a new attorney doing pro bono work, I often thought I was just doing someone a favor – a “favor” I wasn’t required to do. It was just me “going the extra mile,” and if I chose not to, no big deal. I didnít see myself as being lucky to be getting the training while being able to help someone in need.
Well, you know what they say about payback.
It wasn’t until I had my own gigantic case load at a nonprofit that I realized the errors of my ways. I didn’t understand that when a legal service organization gets an offer of help from a lawyer or a student, they count on that person to actually show up and help. They take on additional cases. They commit to serving additional clients. They invest time in supervising students to train them to do important legal work with clients.
I didn’t understand pro bono clients are real clients — real people.
Many attorneys and law students feel like pro bono is the right thing to do, but maybe only when it’s convenient for them. As lawyers, we are the gate keepers of our legal justice system, and it is our responsibility to ensure that everyone has access to it.
It is not our gift to give the community — really, it’s the other way around. We have a responsibility, and if just one client loses his case because he was unrepresented, then we all lose and the system fails.
As Martin Luther King so eloquently stated:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”