Justice News

Laurence Tribe, Senior Counselor for Access to Justice, Speaks at the Federal Government Pro Bono Program Kick Off
New York, NY
United States
Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Thank you for your kind introduction, Preet.  And thank you for all the good work that you and your colleagues are doing in the Southern District of New York.  I also want to thank Laura Klein, whose leadership made today possible and whose dedication has made so many lives better - in DC, Chicago, and, now, New York.  And many thanks to all of you who have helped to bring our federal government’s Pro Bono Program to the next level.  Your work inspires me, as it inspires everyone working to close the justice gap in America.

I’m grateful to each of you for taking valuable time to be here today and at least explore the possibility of becoming part of the new pro bono program being launched here in New York City.  It’s a program that, as you know, draws on federal employees to provide otherwise unavailable legal aid.  I’m talking about people who, like all of you, are already proud servants of the public in their day jobs but who have decided to take on, in addition, the burdens and commitments of still more pro bono work for people in need – an undertaking for which no-one will ever be able to thank each of you enough.
The launch of the federal government pro bono program here in the world’s greatest city is no small occasion.  Many organizations have studied ways to narrow the justice gap in our country both in criminal matters and on the civil side and formed commissions to address the problem and task forces to look at solutions.  We talk a lot about making justice more accessible, equal, and fair.  But today we do more than talk. Today we take action. In what we do here today, justice becomes an active verb. 

In fact, it was the opportunity to move from words to action that brought me to the Department of Justice to lead the Department’s new initiative on Access to Justice.  I’d spent 40 years writing and arguing cases and teaching students at Harvard and loved every minute of it.  As you may have heard, I was blessed to have taught and mentored many truly remarkable young people in my role as a law professor, including our President, the Chief Justice who swore him into office, John Roberts, and his newest nominee to the Supreme Court, Elena Kagan.  I’ll never minimize the privilege I had in working with such amazingly talented individuals and helping them launch their public careers.  But the time had come to act, and when the President I admire so deeply, and the Attorney General I respect so tremendously, asked me to lead the administration’s new initiative for Access to Justice, I jumped at the chance to move from mostly talking to actually doing.  And that’s what I celebrate about your presence here today.  All of you – at least I hope all of you – are about to DO something truly significant.  When you sign on to this endeavor, you will be helping people who are struggling with profound personal, family, and community challenges.  For here in the program in New York City, justice truly meets the streets. 
I don’t know about you, but when I was in law school I envisioned the world of pro bono lawyering largely in terms of civil rights and civil liberties, the sexy stuff of free speech and gay rights, the exoneration of the wrongly accused and the rescue of the falsely detained.  I’ve long since learned that life is more complex.  There’s a great New Yorker cartoon that shows a ship that looks a lot like the Mayflower sailing toward land barely visible along the horizon.  One pilgrim looks thoughtfully into the distance and tells his companion, “You know, religious freedom is my immediate objective . . . but my long-term goal is to go into real estate.” 

Well, it turns out that the world of real estate, writ large, is the world where lots of life’s struggles, struggles with greedy landlords and lenders over intolerable living conditions and threats of avoidable foreclosure and eviction play out, and where you can play perhaps your most constructive roles.  I’ll let one government lawyer’s experience tell what turns out to be a recurring story.  He’s a DOJ lawyer named Michael who works in the Environmental and Natural Resource Division – an attorney who had handled plenty of complex cases in his time but who found himself more deeply engaged than ever when he stood up in superior court on behalf of a pro bono client he met up with for the first time as a volunteer at a Saturday clinic. His client – I’ll call her Joanne to preserve her privacy – faced unbelievable problems. She was raising four small children, two of her own and two grandchildren, in the most deplorable imaginable conditions. There were holes in the walls where the rats had chewed through and essentially overtaken the lower portion of the house. At night the rats and the roaches owned the first floor. The only refuge for the children was to hide in their bedrooms with their doors shut tight.  Surrounded by violence and drug-dealing, Joanne pleaded with her landlord to deal with the rat and rodent infestation, the lice and electrical problems that made their apartment all but uninhabitable. But the landlord tried to blame her for all the problems in his building, so she fought back, seeking help at the clinic where Michael happened to show up as a federal volunteer. Representing her became a highlight of his career. “Although I’ve spent much time in a courtroom,” he said, “it’s so different when you have a woman’s home and family in your briefcase.” Not only did he help her prevail – and to change her life – but he came to have enormous admiration for her courage and her persistence. “You never know,” he said, “where your client is coming from until you live a day in her shoes.” She had persevered through such incredible adversity that he was convinced “If anyone is the hero in this case, it’s her.” Michael had found his connection with his client, and it was mutual hero worship.
This is the truly wonderful thing about the pro bono legal work that Laura Klein’s program is launching here in New York.  It’s not just what each of you will bring to the cause of justice – it’s also what the cause of justice will bring to you.  From the legal work you do in New York, you will bring back with you an understanding of the problems people confront with our legal system that will change who you are and the way you approach whatever else you do in your day jobs with the federal government.  Those with whom and for whom you work in the federal offices you occupy will in turn absorb the lessons you have learned, lessons sometimes too deep to articulate in a simple report of what you happened to do over the weekend. 

It happened to me shortly after I arrived in my new job in the Justice Department at the beginning of March this year.  I spent a morning at a legal clinic in a tough part of Washington DC, in Anacostia. Laura Klein was the indispensable organizer and critical resource, but I was part of a group of a dozen or more federal volunteers, many of them, that day at least, from the Justice Department.  All of us were there for the same reason: to do what we could, in a short time and, thankfully,  under the supervision of folks who knew more than we did about the substantive legal areas involved for men and women in genuine need.  The need was obvious to us as we pulled into the parking lot under grey skies and saw our soon-to-be clients, waiting patiently in the rain and bitter cold for the clinic to open at 8 in the morning.  I could see that those of us who were volunteering that day were in a unique position to make some people’s lives a little more hopeful.  I knew then, and truly knew by the time I was ready to go home, that I couldn’t have spent the day in any more meaningful or rewarding way.  But I won’t lie: it was challenging, too! My first client was a man who had come to the clinic with a question about his mother’s will, a simple enough question surely, for an attorney.  When I told him to hang on while I asked someone, or looked up something online, about the law of wills and trusts, he turned suspicious. “Aren’t you a lawyer?” he asked. I assured him I was, but I’m not sure he was convinced!
That experience felt like a hologram of what the Access to Justice Initiative I’m leading in the Justice Department is all about – and a microcosm of what the Federal Government’s Pro Bono Program is for.  And it fit perfectly with my own vision of justice, which is in some ways the opposite of what has been described as the trickle-down theory – the theory that, if we help those at the top, those at the bottom will eventually benefit from the fallout.  I’ve never been convinced about that.  But I am convinced that, if we help those at the bottom, we will necessarily raise the level of the great river of justice that flows when barriers to law are lowered – when law is a source of solace, not oppression. 

Spending a morning at that clinic in Anacostia highlighted for me a number of truths that have become central to my work at the Justice Department in moving the access to justice initiative forward: that law needs to be accessible to people in their communities, where they live and work and not just at courthouses and in detention facilities; that locally-based, community-driven efforts are likely to be the most sustainable; that such efforts need to be guided and supplemented by self-help desks and kiosks and other user-friendly intake points where people who might have no idea of what kinds of help they need (or what kinds of benefits they might be eligible to receive) can find sources of information and empowerment, through systems designed to help them help themselves; that we need to study what makes such systems work better in some places and under some circumstances than others; and that, by spreading practices that work to places in need we can gradually make justice a reality for people to whom it is now mostly a dream.  The nationwide effort my office is working to construct is built on those foundations, and they’re foundations that came to life for me during a morning I might have wasted had I not spent it in that clinic in Anacostia.
So, too, the experience you will take with you from the pro bono work you will do as volunteers will enrich and inform you in perhaps unexpected ways.  The fact that you will be doing that work as a volunteer whose regular job is with the federal government will in turn enrich and inform your federal workplace in ways nobody can entirely predict.  Of course, private attorneys or attorneys in state or municipal government who serve as pro bono volunteers will bring their experiences with them as well.  But the fact that it is the otherwise remote federal government that you’ll be enriching is, from the perspective of the United States, a distinct source of value.  Put simply, the national government itself gains from the work you will be doing as volunteers in this effort, and it’s a gain of genuine significance.
And it’s a two-way street.  Because make no mistake: To the people you will aid and the communities you will touch, it matters greatly that those reaching out to help them rescue their lives from disaster work for the federal government.  When it’s a federal employee who helps someone avoid a life-shattering mortgage foreclosure or finds a safe home for a victim of domestic violence, what is otherwise a remote and abstract commitment of a distant government becomes an immediate and concrete helping hand. Federal plans to combat unwarranted foreclosure or to improve financial conditions assume a totally different reality when the rubber meets the road.
And, quite frankly, the rubber meets the road a lot here in New York City.  One in five families living in emergency shelters in the City were recently evicted from their homes.   Studies show that a majority of tenants unable to afford a lawyer in Housing Court receive a final judgment of eviction, but only 22 percent of represented tenants do.    In one survey, New York City’s Human Resources Administration found that the lawyers it has funded to represent tenants had a 90 percent success rate.   Lawyers make a difference – you can make a difference. 

Now, it’s true that your federal employment limits the kinds of cases you can take on.  For example, you cannot represent defendants in criminal cases or people facing deportation, so the much-discussed crisis in indigent defense, and the terrible plight of unaccompanied immigrant children, 8,000 of whom come to this country each year without a parent or guardian to watch over them and are then detained by immigration officials on the way to deportation, are problems with which you won’t be able to offer any direct assistance.  But even those problems will be indirectly relieved by the work you are permitted to do in this program.  Think about it:  By doing your part, you enlarge the ranks of lawyers providing pro bono services to those in dire need of legal help – you enlarge the size of the pie even though there are some slices you’re not permitted to touch.  So, when non-government lawyers are faced with the difficult decision of either helping people facing wrongful eviction or loss of parental rights, on the one hand, or representing indigent juveniles facing prolonged detention or poor immigrants seeking asylum, on the other hand, they’ll know that experienced federal lawyers like you are helping to meet one set of needs, freeing them up to meet others.
So there’s just no doubt that you will all be doing something of enormous value in taking part in this pro bono program.  To make it possible for this program, and others like it that my initiative is encouraging, to have maximum effect throughout the country, we need to devote considerable energy to the promotion of rule changes that permit federal government attorneys to do pro bono work where their offices are located regardless of where in the nation they are licensed to practice law – rule changes modeled on DC Court of Appeals Rule 49 – and to the adoption of rules that authorize the unbundling of legal services and permit more attorneys to offer crucial short-term free legal services where needed, rules like ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct 1.2 and 6.5.  And I’m proud to announce today that my Access to Justice Initiative has enthusiastically joined with Laura Klein and her office to support those rules changes throughout the United States.  It’s just one of the many ways my team will be working with Laura’s office to improve access to justice nationwide.  It’s among the many initiatives we’re moving on – and we’ve only been in existence for three and a half months! 

I have to say that my suite of offices in the Robert F. Kennedy Building in Washington, fondly known as “Main Justice,” isn’t either large or particularly impressive, and my legal staff isn’t large either.  But there’s one thing that’s HUGE about our office:  It’s the sign outside my door.  It says, simply, “Access to Justice.”  People who have visited me there – and they have included state and federal judges, prosecutors, public defenders, and leaders of charitable organizations – have often paused to have their photos taken . . . not with me, mind you, but with the sign on my door.  And many have openly marveled that there is, at long last, such a sign somewhere in the vast Department of Justice.  I’m proud to be associated with that sign and with what it represents.
I don’t underestimate the magnitude of the challenge we face.  I’m constantly reminded by others and often remind myself that making justice truly accessible and equal is a tall order – not least because justice and law are anything but synonymous.  Law is a means.  Justice is an end.  All too often throughout world history, and the history of our own country, law has been an instrument not of justice but of injustice, of oppression and exploitation, of discrimination and subordination. 

But it is precisely when I remember that difficult truth that I remember, at the same moment, what it was that drew me to this administration and this President in the first place.  President Obama is fond of saying we grow.  We change.  We learn.  With occasional steps backwards, we evolve.  He spoke and thought that way as my student and research assistant when I first worked with him back in 1989.  Even then, he was fond of quoting our Constitution’s preamble: “in order to form a more perfect Union.”  He has always been focused on how it was part of the genius of our founding documents, of the framework of our government, that it was capable of evolution and self-correction, of moving past even a sin as terrible as slavery, of transcending a history shadowed by tragedy. 

And the spirit of self-correction isn’t morally neutral.  Just as the arc of the moral universe, as Martin Luther King famously reminded us, bends toward justice, so the spirit of self-correction moves always toward accepting responsibility for one another, always toward inclusiveness and service, never toward mere greed and self-interest.  “The road is long,” one of my favorite songs says, “With many a winding turn/ That leads us to who knows where/ Who knows when/ But I’m strong/ Strong enough to carry him/ He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.”

Access to Justice
Updated April 28, 2016