Department of Justice Seal


ACTING ASSOCIATE ATTORNEY GENERAL

REMARKS FOR THE

PRO BONO PARTNERSHIP FORUM

Houston, April 7, 2000


Thank you for that kind introduction, Rob. It is fitting that we are here to discuss pro bono partnerships at a conference sponsored by a partnership of two organizations that have labored hard and effectively to improve the delivery of legal services to the most needy: the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on Pro Bono & Public Service and the National Legal Aid and Defender Association. You have each done so much to help strengthen the network of lawyers working for those who need legal help the most.

This Administration, and particularly the Department of Justice, recognizes the importance of partnerships and the importance of reaching out to communities to learn: what are the needs? who is already there who can help? and what can we do to support and advance your efforts to address problems at the community level?

That is why you are here today. As I look around, I see leaders of key communities-judges, lawyers from leading corporations and law firms, representatives from law schools and legal services providers. Each one of you has insight into the issues your community faces; each one of you brings something unique to the table to help address these issues; and each one of you knows others in your community who can offer additional insight and skills.

This Forum provides a great opportunity to draw from the incredible breadth and depth of experience that are presented here, to figure out how you can craft a partnership in your community that will strengthen and expand pro bono legal services.

Let me tell you a little about what the Department of Justice has done in this area -- I think there are lessons that we have learned in reaching out to communities and in setting up our own pro bono program that may be useful to you, no matter the size of your business, law firm, school, court, or community. In brief, partnerships to improve the delivery of justice are most effective when:

First - collaboration. The Department has a number of initiatives that call upon communities to collaborate in figuring out how to improve the way the system works. Through the Office of Justice Programs, the Department of Justice makes grants to communities to help crime victims, to address the issue of violence against women, and to improve the criminal justice system's capacity to respond to crime at the state, local and tribal level.

One example is the civil legal assistance program that offers grants to provide legal services for victims of domestic violence. In order to qualify for a grant, legal services providers and domestic violence victim assistance organizations have to partner together to identify the most pressing legal needs of battered women in their community and to identify a means for effectively getting lawyers skilled in the dynamics of domestic violence to serve these women. Grants have supported programs that bring social work students in to work side by side with law students in a domestic violence clinic; that reach out in creative ways to rural and other underserved communities.

The impact of this program, however, goes beyond the specific services it is able to fund. We have found that once these legal services providers and domestic violence organizations had the incentive to come together, they learned that there were many ways they could work together to creatively meet the needs of the people with whom they worked.

This is a lesson that many of you learned long ago - and have already put to good use. It can be aptly applied in expanding pro bono in your communities. In short, part of the task that faces all of us is simply to get people in the same room, around the same table, to talk about what they each believe they can do and how they can work together.

Second - identify and squarely address any challenges to getting a good, effective program off the ground. We at DOJ can speak from experience on this point. In earlier administrations, lawyers at the Department of Justice struggled with an array of possible barriers to doing pro bono work. There are, of course, plenty of potential conflict issues. There are also necessary but constraining rules about use of time, equipment, and staff that seemed complex, cumbersome, and downright scary to many individual DOJ lawyers.

None of these barriers was impossible to overcome, but they were tricky. Following an Executive Order by President Clinton, and a directive to the Attorney General, the Department developed a comprehensive written policy on volunteer and pro bono legal services. We have figured out how to facilitate pro bono work in an agency where -- believe me -- we are sensitive to many of the same resource and "bottom line" issues that private organizations face. And in that written policy, we told folks how they can do pro bono work and - importantly - we told them in plain English what all the rules are.

Jessica Rosenbaum, a lawyer in the Department, now serves as the Department's Pro Bono Program Manager and is available to answer questions and provide materials to interested lawyers. We have an internal pro bono committee, with representatives from every component who are available to get pro bono information to their attorneys.

We work closely with area legal services providers to design pro bono opportunities that are tailored to the needs of our lawyers.

We have had a valuable ally in the DC Bar. We worked successfully to change the practice rule that required any attorney to first be a member of the DC bar in order to practice in DC. Now, there is an exception that permits lawyers admitted to other bars to do pro bono work under the supervision of a DC bar member. That greatly expanded the number of attorneys free to work on pro bono matters.

We are also pleased to work with the DC Bar to help staff drop-in legal clinics. The Bar lines up law firms to take on the cases that government lawyers can't, such as welfare or tax matters.

Today Department of Justice lawyers who want to do pro bono work have the information they need, and people to turn to for help in steering clear of barriers that once looked so forbidding.

We have also worked with other federal agencies to provide support as they develop pro bono programs. Assistant Attorney General Eldie Acheson chairs an interagency pro bono working group that meets regularly at the Department. This group has provided a valuable forum for the exchange of practical information about how to develop pro bono programs and get them off the ground. In the same vein, we worked closely with the ABA's Standing Committee on Pro Bono in the development of its invaluable "Deskbook" for public sector lawyers on how to set up pro bono programs. There are terrific resources out there at your disposal - many prepared by NLADA and the ABA's Standing Committee - that can help you by showing how others have worked out some of the same issues you may be grappling with in expanding pro bono programs.

There is one such issue - I alluded to it earlier - that those of you in corporate law departments may be facing. And that is a legitimate concern that the more traditional, courtroom pro bono cases just aren't cut out for your lawyers, or vice versa. I know that the ABA and NLADA have both been working with you to address this. And many businesses have learned that the legal needs of underserved communities are as varied as the skills of your lawyers: service providers may need help incorporating or getting non-profit status; community development organizations may need contract or real estate experts; and low-income people may need help with their taxes. At the Department of Justice we have worked creatively to identify opportunities for our lawyers that are interesting to them, that draw on their skills, and that respond to the real constraints imposed by their hectic schedules. Some of these are litigation opportunities - others are not. And I know that corporations around the country are already getting involved in less traditional kinds of pro bono work. Reach out to your community; learn what the needs are; and draw on the array of resources that is presented to you at this Conference to create a partnership that can help meet those needs.

This is a good segue to my third point - leadership. Last year, President Clinton issued a Call to Action to the legal profession to increase diversity in the profession and to increase access to legal services for communities of color. The President asked Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder to monitor progress on this ambitious initiative. And Eric Holder has responded -- meeting monthly with representatives from law firms, companies, bar associations, and others to hear of their progress, and speaking regularly to lawyers, judges and other leaders in the legal community about what they can do to make a difference. This initiative - called Lawyers for One America - will, among other things, provide yet another resource for your pro bono efforts: it is compiling examples of promising pro bono programs that reach underserved minority communities, to help others who want to expand outreach. (I might add that this initiative coincides with, and is reinforced by, Bill Paul's work as President of the ABA to increase diversity in our profession.)

Leadership on a national, statewide, and local level is important. But so often it is simply visible and vocal leadership within an organization that makes a difference. And leadership is measured not just by words, edicts, and directives, but by actions. We have an Attorney General who has made a commitment to perform 50 hours of pro bono or volunteer work each year. We have Assistant Attorney Generals attending drop-in clinics, advising community members of available resources for legal assistance and, in some instances, taking pro bono cases to court. This sends an unambiguous message: that giving back to the community is important and valuable, and a part of every lawyer's life.

Rob Weiner exemplifies the leadership we need. As President of the DC Bar, he demonstrated how critical leadership can be in enhancing pro bono services. He and the Chief Judges of the courts in the District of Columbia together called upon the leaders of the major firms in our community to step up to the plate and help meet a desperate need for pro bono legal assistance. The firms responded: lending lawyers and support staff to local legal services organizations; enhancing the number and kind of pro bono cases taken on; and working with service providers to figure out new ways in which lawyers could provide assistance. And Rob has continued that leadership role in the ABA.

Each of you is a leader. You have a tremendous opportunity to work with and for your communities to creatively meet unmet needs, and better the lives of your fellow citizens.

This is an important task -- important to the lives of our communities and to the justice system. The American justice system is one of the pillars of our great democracy. But its effectiveness --its strength -- is tied to the faith and the confidence of the people it serves.

This is where your work in providing pro bono services, or in supporting legal services in other tangible ways comes in: Just over twenty-five years ago, in establishing the Legal Services Corporation, Congress said that "for many of our citizens, the availability of legal services has reaffirmed faith in our government of laws."

By reaching out to expand pro bono services and to extend them into communities as yet underserved, you restore confidence and you reinforce the all-important faith of our people in the justice system.

I look forward to our continued work together in assuring equal access to justice.