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Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks at the American Bar Association’s National Pro Bono Summit


Washington, DC
United States

Thank you, Mike [Pratt], for those kind words – and, especially, for your work in planning and preparing for this week’s summit. Without your vision and leadership – as well as the dedicated efforts of everyone on your team – this important event might never have gotten off the ground.

Thank you all for being part of this critical summit. It is a privilege to be included in this inaugural gathering and to join with so many distinguished leaders – and essential partners – in celebrating National Pro Bono Week.

I also want to thank my friends at the American Bar Association for their work – this week and throughout the year – to raise awareness about the power and importance of pro bono service; to ensure the strength and integrity of our justice system; and to remind every member of our nation’s legal community of the sacred responsibilities we share, as well as the challenges that – together – we must address and overcome.

In particular, I’d like to recognize Larry McDevitt, Chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono; Steve Scudder, the Committee’s Counsel; and Chief Judge [Robert] Bell and Professor [Pamela] Karlan – the Co-Chairs of today’ s Summit – for everything that they’ve done to bring us together.

This is an extraordinary group. I’m pleased to be joined by colleagues from across the Justice Department, as well as the private and nonprofit sectors. I’m glad to see some of my former co-workers from Covington and Burling, and old friends like Esther Lardent from the Pro Bono Institute, as well as Jim Sandman and John Levi from the Legal Services Corporation. And I’m especially grateful that so many members of the bench are with us, including the Chief Judge of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, Eric Washington, and state Supreme Court Justices from Colorado, Missouri, and Tennessee. Justice Gregory Hobbs, Chief Justice Richard Teitelman, and Justice Janice Holder – thank you for bringing your perspectives to today’s discussions.

This week, we have a unique opportunity: not only to assess the state of pro bono legal services nationwide, but to establish a path forward – a framework that will allow lawyers all across the country to build on the progress that’s been made in recent years, and to bring even more partners into this work.

Of course, thanks to many of the people in this room, I believe we’re on the right track. And we can all be encouraged by the progress that has been made over the last three decades. When I look back on the days after I graduated from law school, it’s amazing to realize – first of all, that some of the young attorneys here weren’t even alive yet – but also that the idea of providing legal services free of charge was the very rare exception, rather than a more routine practice.

This was the case in many law offices – and most corporations. But, because of the ABA’s strong leadership on equal justice issues – and the dedication of so many lawyers, advocates, and students – we’ve experienced nothing less than a sea change in the culture of our nation’s legal community.

Today, all around the country, talented attorneys of all specialties – and from law firms, business, and government agencies of all sizes – have come to recognize, and to eagerly accept, the professional obligations that all lawyers share.

We are bound by a responsibility to use our unique skills and training – not just to advance cases, but to serve a cause; and to help our nation fulfill its founding promise of equal justice under law.

In this work, the ABA has taken a central leadership role in helping to increase both the number – and the quality – of attorneys providing pro bono services. Through your Pro Bono Center and your Standing Committee on Pro Bono, and by challenging our legal community to live up to the standards you’ve set, the ABA has galvanized the entire bar to take meaningful steps forward.

Perhaps the best evidence of this lies in the diverse crowd of accomplished lawyers – from virtually every field and specialty in our profession – who have assembled here today. Each of you was selected to take part in this Summit because of your expertise, and your dedication to improving our justice system by expanding access to legal services.

This afternoon – as you share insights and experiences, and seek ways to reinforce, and to amplify, the groundbreaking work that’s already underway – I want to assure you that today’s Justice Department is, and will continue to be, proud to stand with you. And our commitment to this work will remain a priority.

Of course, nowhere is this commitment more clear than in the work of our Access to Justice Initiative. Last year, we launched this landmark Initiative to help ensure that basic legal services are available, affordable, and accessible to everyone in this country – regardless of status or income. Today, the Access to Justice office is collaborating with state, local, tribal, and federal officials – as well as a variety of nonprofit and private sector partners – to help secure the assistance that so many Americans desperately need and deserve.

Since June, this work has been led by Senior Counselor Mark Childress, who is here with us this afternoon. I know that many of you are working closely with Mark and his team. O ne of their key areas of focus has been on supporting and strengthening pro bono work. In fact, just two weeks ago, Mark was among the many Administration leaders who gathered at the White House to discuss this work, as we celebrated the achievements of 16 remarkable individuals from across the legal profession whom President Obama had designated as “Champions of Change.”

From assisting families facing foreclosure, to supporting victims of domestic violence and civil rights violations, to helping displaced immigrants and refugees – these Champions have helped, not just to ensure justice, which is most important; they’ve also saved time, court system resources, and precious taxpayer dollars. And they’ve created opportunities for others to help provide legal services to people throughout the country who need our help most.

Five of these Champions are with us today: Nan Heald, Lillian Johnson, Deborah Rhode, David Stern, and Jo-Ann Wallace. And I’d like to ask them to please stand, so we can congratulate them on all they’re helping to achieve.

Their innovative efforts stand as an example for us all. And they remind us that – when it comes to ensuring access to legal services – we must think creatively and act collaboratively. We must forge more public-private partnerships. And we must enlist the help of as many potential volunteers and partner organizations as possible – and not just based on the traditional law firm model.

We need to expand current outreach efforts to include retired attorneys, stay-at-home parent attorneys, corporate attorneys, solo practitioners, and – of course – government lawyers. We must heed examples like the District of Columbia Court of Appeals’ Rule 49, which provides an exception to required bar membership that allows more qualified lawyers to participate in pro bono work. And we should fight to eliminate barriers and unnecessary restrictions that limit qualified lawyers – wherever they work – from engaging in pro bono service.

Now, this is especially important when it comes to pro bono work that’s performed by government attorneys, who often are forced to navigate a host of statutory, regulatory, and ethical restrictions in order to participate.

Despite these roadblocks, thanks to the dedication of dozens of leaders across the federal government – and, most of all, to the visionary leadership of the Justice Department’s own Laura Klein, who is here with us today – over the last 15 years, the Federal Government Pro Bono Program has grown to include highly-skilled attorneys from more than 40 agencies. And in recent years, it not only brought home the ABA’s prestigious Pro Bono Publico Award – it has shattered all previous records for participation.

In each of the last two years, here in Washington alone, federal government attorneys have accepted more than 50 pro bono cases. These attorneys have become a significant source of volunteers for clinics and educational programs throughout the region. And, perhaps most significantly, these efforts are being replicated beyond our nation’s capital – in New York, Chicago, and – as of this summer – San Francisco.

In addition, an increasing number of agencies – including Justice Department components – have begun to adopt policies that make it easier for attorneys to use paid administrative leave to make court appearances related to their pro bono work. Despite these critical efforts, significant barriers to service remain. And, as Laura would be the first to tell you, demand continues to be overwhelming. Undoubtedly, the need for pro bono assistance will continue to grow.

That’s why, as we look beyond this week’s Summit, we must redouble our efforts to engage young people, aspiring lawyers, and future policymakers in strengthening our nation’s justice system. We must foster a new generation of Champions – and challenge them to extend the proud traditions, and many achievements, that we celebrate today.


Pro bono work must be seen by all lawyers as nothing more than an essential part of their professional lives. And one way to do that is to get young lawyers – and law students – involved early in pro bono activities. The obligation of pro bono service must become a part of the DNA of both the legal profession and of every lawyer.

Now, I don’t expect that getting where we want – and need – to be will be easy. But, as I look out over this crowd, I cannot help but feel optimistic about what’s possible. Through events like this one, through observances like the National Pro Bono Week Celebration, and through the work that you’re leading every day – we are not just building momentum. We are building a better, brighter future.

As you close out the ambitious agenda that remains before you, finish those action plans you’ve been developing, and – I hope – as you lay the foundation for a second National Pro Bono Summit, know that we are counting on each of you. The progress we will achieve depends on the priorities that we set – and the commitments that we make – today.

Just as I will continue to expect the very best from each of you, you can rely on my full support.

I look forward to building on the historic progress that’s been made to ensure that, in this great nation, equal justice will no longer be a function of privilege; and that – fully and finally – it will be the right of all.

Thank you.

Access to Justice
Updated April 28, 2016