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Attorney General Eric Holder Addresses the Pro Bono Institute


Washington, DC
United States

Thank you, Esther [Lardent]. It’s good to be with you, and it’s an honor to accept this wonderful award. But I’m especially grateful for the opportunity to tell you, in person, how much I appreciate the work you do and the service you inspire. Your commitment to equal justice is clear. And it has proved to be contagious. Over the last 15 years, your commitment to equal justice has encouraged hundreds of attorneys, in this room and elsewhere, to provide thousands upon thousands of hours of critical – and often life-changing – pro bono legal services.

Today, we’ve gathered to reflect on the power and importance of this work and, also, to celebrate the example of public service that Chesterfield Smith’s life and career continue to provide us. As president of the American Bar Association, as a founding partner of Holland & Knight , and as an outspoken champion for the right to counsel , Chesterfield Smith transformed how America’s private sector views pro bono service. It wasn’t so long ago that, within many legal offices, the idea of providing our services free of charge was the exception, not the rule. But this conference – and this crowd – is proof that community service has become an essential part of the culture in our nation’s premier law firms and leading corporations.

That’s because of pioneers like Chesterfield Smith, and Esther Lardent, and many of the partners and CEOs gathered here. These leaders recognized – indeed you recognize – that providing access to justice is a professional, as well as moral, obligation for all lawyers. Chesterfield Smith often argued that a lawyer’s skills and training must be used not simply to make a living, but also to make a difference. Throughout his career, he seized every possible opportunity to remind his colleagues that justice is not a special privilege of the rich. It must be the right of all.

In 1974, in my first year of law school, Chesterfield Smith stood before a class of law students and said, "If you don’t intend to work to improve the quality of justice, then I hope that you flunk your exams."

This may sound harsh, especially to the law students who are here with us. But it shows how seriously he took the responsibilities that attorneys share. I, too, believe that the privilege of earning a law degree, and of living a life in the law, comes with a condition – an ongoing obligation to advance the cause of justice and the rule of law.

Now, I’ve been a lawyer for more than half my life, and I’ve spent three decades in public service. But I know that government alone cannot advance the cause of justice. Our history proves this. And, time after time, our nation’s leaders have acknowledged this fact. Most famously, perhaps, was in the summer of 1963, when President Kennedy gathered more than 200 of the nation’s top lawyers at the White House and enlisted their help in the struggle to end segregation and advance civil rights. In response, those attorneys launched the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Thirty-six years later, President Clinton borrowed this strategy in his battle against poverty and discrimination. In July of 1999, I was among the hundreds of lawyers he summoned to the East Room. The President asked us to serve America’s poorest communities in all of the ways lawyers can – whether by advising inner-city businesses and entrepreneurs, or by representing the poor in our courts, or by mentoring young law students. He told us, "There is a limit to what we can do without you. We need the work lawyers do. We need the ideas lawyers get. We need the dreams lawyers dream."

President Clinton’s call to action became Lawyers for One America – an initiative I was asked to lead. That experience confirmed for me that, when the power of our profession is harnessed and when it’s focused, America’s lawyers can truly drive progress and change the world. We can open new doors of opportunity. And we can alter the course of history.

Today, our challenge is to extend our nation’s – and our profession’s – tradition of public service - for the call issued by President Kennedy and echoed by President Clinton has not been fully heard. As a result, the work they asked us to do is not yet finished. But many of you are leading the way forward. And I’m encouraged by your commitment to pro bono work. The breadth and scope of what you’ve accomplished – with the support of your management teams and with the guidance of the Pro Bono Institute – is nothing short of astonishing.

In recent months, you’ve helped our veterans access the benefits they need and deserve. You’ve enabled thousands of disabled Americans to secure Social Security payments and allowed hundreds of disabled children to attain medical coverage. You’ve overturned multiple wrongful convictions.You’ve helped struggling nonprofits access the investments needed to survive and expand services. You’ve brought hope to victims of domestic violence and to vulnerable people around the world who seek asylum within our borders. You’ve represented unaccompanied children in immigration proceedings. And you’ve worked to protect consumers, ensure civil rights, and safeguard our environment.

What is more, in the midst of a crisis in indigent defense in our country, many of you have represented the poor in criminal casesIn this time of growing budget challenges for state and local governments, lawyers for the indigent face huge caseloads and often struggle to do right by their clients. And some defendants are without representation entirely during critical stages of the proceedings against them. But it’s heartening to see how many firms have stepped up, establishing programs to support public defender offices and helping to secure new resources to ensure the Sixth Amendment right to counsel.

In all of this work, you’ve helped people in crisis and in need. And, as you have stood by your clients, you have also stood up for, and honored, a basic principle that defines who we are as a nation of laws. As you all know, advancing the cause of justice sometimes means working for the sake of the fairness and integrity of our system of justice. This is why lawyers who accept our professional responsibility to protect the rule of law, the right to counsel, and access to our courts – even when this requires defending unpopular positions or clients – deserve the praise and gratitude of all Americans. They also deserve respect. Those who reaffirm our nation’s most essential and enduring values do not deserve to have their own values questioned. Let me be clear about this: Lawyers who provide counsel for the unpopular are, and should be treated as what they are: patriots.

The principle of equal justice under law inspires this service. And it guides the work of today’s Justice Department. In fact, the Department recently made an historic and permanent commitment to expanding and ensuring access to legal services. As many of you know, on March 1, we launched a landmark Access to Justice Initiative, led by the eminent Harvard Law Professor, Larry Tribe. The idea for this office was simple. Just as you have pro bono initiatives at your firms and corporations, I wanted to be sure that in our house, too, there is a permanent effort to provide access to justice and to continuously enhance the fairness and integrity of our legal system. The Initiative has hit the ground running with an ambitious agenda. I’m glad that Larry is here with us today, and I’m grateful for his service.

T oday, I’m also proud to announce that our Legal Orientation Program will be expanding next month to the New York City area. The LOP is a great success story. It provides key funding to local nonprofit organizations that assist non-citizens in detention and helps to improve the efficiency of our legal system. Since its establishment in 2003, this program has been an excellent example of public-private cooperation between the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, leading immigrant advocacy groups, and the private bar. This partnership helps make our justice system more fair, and more transparent, to those who come before our immigration courts. And, by drastically reducing the length and cost of court proceedings, the program has also proved to be a critical tool for saving precious taxpayer dollars. In fact, LOP has reduced the average duration of detention by nearly two weeks. And, for every person served – at a cost of about $100 each – the government saves upwards of $1,300. For a program that currently serves 50,000 detained people each year – and will soon serve two thousand more – the economic benefits are tremendous.

Our new Access to Justice Initiative, and programs like LOP, present opportunities for collaboration and mutual support between lawyers inside and outside of government. Today, I ask each of you to seize these opportunities. Unlike Presidents Kennedy and Clinton, I may not be able to call you all to the White House. But I will never shy away from seeking your participation and partnership in the work of strengthening our nation’s justice system.

So, know that I will be counting on you. Together, I believe we can extend the tradition of service we celebrate today. And I know we can build a future that reflects our nation’s highest principles and most enduring values.

I look forward to this work. And I’m so grateful for your commitment to it.

Thank you.

Updated March 14, 2016