Thank you, Jim [Sandman], for your kind words, as well as your outstanding leadership – both as President of the Legal Services Corporation and as Chair of the DC Bar Pro Bono Committee. I’d also like to recognize Bar President [Darrell] Mottley, Executive Director of the DC Pro Bono Program [Monika] Varma and President-Elect [Thomas] Williamson for their work in bringing us together today – and, of course, for their dedication to ensuring that the DC Bar’s pro bono and public service efforts will continue to serve as a model for the rest of the nation.
It’s a pleasure to stand with you today, and to join with so many leaders and legal service providers; representatives of law firms, corporate legal departments, and government agencies –as well as members of the judiciary – in reflecting on all that has been achieved since last year’s National Pro Bono Celebration – and in helping to secure the promising future that lies ahead of us.
I know that each of you – in your own ways, and throughout your careers – has supported both local and national efforts to provide critical – and often life-changing – legal services to those who cannot afford them. Whether through advocacy or representation – by demanding fairness in our courts, or by counseling clients on nights and weekends – everyone in this room can take pride in the work that you’ve done to make quality legal services available to the most vulnerable among us, and to uphold the principles that have long defined and distinguished the American justice system.
And, for those who have dedicated themselves to expanding this country’s pro bono services , I am proud to say that these words have become not merely an ideal but a rallying cry.
Since June, it has been my honor to lead a new, permanent office dedicated to ensuring that our justice system is accessible to all – regardless of status or income. This historic initiative was launched last year by Attorney General Holder, and opened its doors under the leadership of the incomparable Professor Larry Tribe.
The Access to Justice office represents an unprecedented commitment by this Administration to addressing our indigent defense system, to growing pro bono service opportunities, and – ultimately – to strengthening our entire legal system. Already, it has helped bring key partners – from across our nation’s legal community and every level of government – to identify and implement the solutions we need.
Of course, this progress has been a long time coming – and it doesn’t come a moment too soon. Despite committed efforts that many of you are leading, the Attorney General is exactly right when he describes the current state of legal services for the poor as not just a “problem,” but a “crisis.”
We’ve all heard the stories and seen the shocking statistics. Over half of those who qualify for and seek assistance from the 137 principle federally-funded legal assistance programs must be turned away because of funding constraints.
This is unacceptable. And it’s why my colleagues and I – in the Access to Justice office and beyond – have been aggressively working to expand, and to strengthen, pro bono partnerships and opportunities.
One area of particular focus has been the reentry community, where we know pro bono services are desperately needed. In January, the Attorney General convened the first meeting of a Cabinet-level Interagency Reentry Council, bringing together principals and staff from no fewer than 18 federal departments and agencies to coordinate and advance efforts to conserve precious resources, to keep communities safe, and to help those returning from prison and jail to become productive members of society.
The Access to Justice office is proud to co-chair the Council’s staff-level Subcommittee on Employment Barriers, which is dedicated to reducing discrimination and other obstacles to employment for those who have been involved with the criminal justice system. In addition to coordinating these efforts, and guiding the direction of policy development, we are also working hard to increase support for legal service programs that have proven their ability to help achieve these goals.
In addition, I’m pleased to report that the Access to Justice Initiative, in partnership with the Legal Services Corporation, has been collaborating with the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration to educate grantees about how legal services can enhance the success of their programs for people with a history of criminal activity. By providing the assistance needed to secure licenses, to modify child support orders, and to tear down other barriers that prevent people from rising above past mistakes, we can help to address many of the persistent reentry problems that have law-related solutions.
As we look to the future, let me assure you that we will continue to build on this work. And we will seek out additional opportunities to increase awareness of the role legal services can play in making these and other programs both more efficient and more effective. While I recognize that rapidly growing demands – and increasingly limited resources – will pose serious challenges, current conditions have also inspired a new focus on pro bono services, and a new commitment to this work.
For today’s Justice Department, this commitment is clear. It has driven efforts to identify best practices, to support what’s working, and to increase the number – and quality – of attorneys who are able to engage in pro bono work.
In this regard, I’d like to recognize the work of my DOJ colleague Laura Klein, who helped launch the Federal Government Pro Bono Program in 1996. The program now exists in four cities, and the Access to Justice Initiative is working with Laura to address pro bono needs.
Of course, thanks to many of the people in this room, we often have to look no further than right here in our nation’s capital – where the DC Court of Appeals has established the gold standard for bar membership exceptions with its Rule 49. You’re also leading the way with innovative projects like the one jointly sponsored by the DC Bar’s Pro Bono Program and the DC Access to Justice Commission’s SAILS program, which has found success in harnessing the vast experience of senior lawyers from local law firms, government agencies, and corporate legal departments.
There’s no question that we can all learn a great deal from these – and many other – promising initiatives – both over the course of the ABA’s historic National Pro Bono Summit, and in the weeks and months to follow.
But my colleagues and I also recognize the importance of keeping up this robust commitment to pro bono work in our own careers. Last December, the entire Access to Justice office volunteered to staff the DC Bar Pro Bono Program’s Advice and Referral Clinic. Through another local clinic, one of my senior counsels recently helped to bring suit on behalf of a blind homeowner who was being taken advantage of by a delinquent tenant. They succeeded in getting the tenant to vacate the premises.
Another senior counsel is currently representing an elderly client who faces eviction from public housing. And both of them have been unequivocal in their praise and support of the DC Bar Pro Bono Program.
As I look around this crowd, it’s inspiring to know that stories like these aren’t the exception – but the rule. Time and again, you’ve proven your dedication to building energy and momentum for the pro bono movement. You’ve shown us that, as we fight to help those most in need of our assistance, we don’t have to do so alone. Across the nation, lawyers and advocates from all backgrounds – from law firms, to major corporations, to government agencies – are rededicating themselves to this cause.
Not least among these allies is the lawyer who works in the Oval Office. Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of joining Attorney General Holder at the White House to recognize 16 extraordinary lawyers who – because of their public interest and pro bono work – President Obama had named as “Champions of Change.” These Champions came from an incredible variety of backgrounds – from Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellows, who are helping veterans overcome homelessness; to the Assistant Dean for Public Service at the NYU School of Law, who is helping to connect the next generation of lawyers to pro bono opportunities and public interest jobs across the country.
Thanks to efforts such as these – and to the leadership of DC Bar members, Administration officials, and all of the experts who are participating in this week’s Summit – as we gather for our third National Pro Bono Celebration, we have many reasons to be encouraged about the days ahead.
Although we may not yet have a legal system that lives up to our highest ideals, I am confident that, through the efforts of so many in this room and across the country – past, present and future – we are well on our way to realizing that goal.
Once again, thank you for the remarkable work you are leading – and for the opportunity to join you today.