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Fifty-Fifty Plan for Equal Justice : The “Left-Brain side” of “Why?”

In my experience practically every attorney believes that civil legal assistance should be available to all low-income persons who have legitimate, serious legal problems. We’ve struggled collectively with how to provide it. I hope you will take the time to read this proposal for a solution.

I’ve come to some realizations. We lawyers can insure civil legal help for all low-income people. We have the understanding. We have the motivation. We have the capacity. Now we have a plan.

I call it the Fifty-Fifty Plan.

The Fifty-Fifty Plan provides all lawyers with the opportunity to step forward, accept responsibility for our justice system, and provide local and national leadership. The Plan demonstrates a professionalism that the public will salute. It calls on each and every one of us to contribute 50 hours of Pro Bono service per year (Nothing new) and contribute $50 per month to our local legal aid program (New to some, but not all of us).

I challenge you to read further.

I propose, first, that all attorneys, public and private, active and inactive, make a reality out of Rule 6.1 and provide 50 hours per year of real pro bono service to low-income persons. There is a legal aid program or bar program Pro Bono Coordinator/Director serving every county in Tennessee.

At LAET, we have three Pro Bono Directors, one each in Johnson City, Knoxville, and Chattanooga. Take the responsibility to contact them and tell them you are ready to help. They have a wide variety of opportunities regardless of your area of expertise or skill level. Remember, there is plenty to do!

It is time to stop saying “they never call.”
It is time to stop having the secretary screen out their calls.
It is time to stop creating excuses not to accept cases.
It is time we all got real about pro bono.

In Knox County alone, if all 1700 attorneys actually did 50 hours per year of pro bono, we would help more than 8,500 additional people each year and prevent an incredible amount of pain, loss and heartache.

And yes, I want more.

It takes more than pro bono to meet the needs of our communities’ low-income residents. It takes a strong and adequately staffed law firm to meet the majority of the needs that exist. Pro bono isn’t free. It takes staff and costs money to operate an efficient and effective pro bono program.

I, therefore, also propose that every attorney contribute $50 per month to Legal Aid in order to build a sufficiently staffed program to serve the client community in partnership with the program’s/bar’s pro bono efforts. In Knox County as just one example, 1700 attorneys contributing $50 per month would yield $1,020,000. This would double the total amount of funding that LAET currently has to meet the needs of Knox County eligible individuals. I know that not every attorney can truly afford $600 per year. I also know there are several who are already contributing at a higher level and many, many more who could contribute if they so chose. There are enough who could give more that we could make up for the few who cannot reach the goal.

One situation that helped form the Fifty-Fifty Plan was the status of recent IOLTA grant awards. First, let me make it crystal clear that we appreciate every dime from IOLTA, the attorneys who participate and the staff and Board of the Tennessee Bar Foundation who make it happen.

It’s just that another year of declining revenues highlights the limits of this vehicle for funding. Additional challenges are faced now with United Way campaigns and funding to LAET. All of this is in the face of increased need brought on by tough economic times.

What has been reinforced in my mind is that all of these efforts that we at LAET (and programs across the country) go through are stopgap at best.

The multitude of grantors will always have competing interests, most of which are more politically palatable than lawyers, let alone lawyers helping poor people. (Quote from John Asher, Executive Director, Colorado Legal Services: “The only thing people hate worse than a poor person is a poor person with a lawyer”)

Despite the incredible effort of dedicated staff, the relative high success of development efforts, with all that we can muster and with tremendous programmatic efficiency, we are able to serve less than 15% of the people who desperately need our help.

We will continue to be “seldom seen” in many Court Houses with 16 attorneys trying to serve 230,000 people in 26 counties with litigation, administrative advocacy, negotiations, mediation and community education.

Too often and too easily, legal aid providers are blamed for not being able to do it all.

So let’s get to my point. My point is that Legal Aid is the responsibility of lawyers, all lawyers.

An equitable justice system is the responsibility of everyone.

I’ve made that argument most often to grantors who demand that we show them what lawyers are doing first, before they will even consider a grant. I can point to the value of pro bono that is delivered and to the dollars that are donated, but if I’m honest with myself (or confronted by someone who can do the math) I have to acknowledge that on a per lawyer basis, it is professionally and personally embarrassing. The rest of the world sees us as miserly.

Look, I know you donate to others. We all do. For 2003, LAET’s staff contributed more to United Way of Greater Knoxville than any other law firm, save one.

My point here is that Legal Aid has no natural constituency except poor folk and lawyers. The public expects you to provide for the legal needs of the poor. They’ve read the oath thing.

Without you stepping up in a big way, it is never going to happen.
With your leadership, some other folk may decide to join in.

The result of a fully implemented Fifty-Fifty Plan would help provide services to approximately 14,000 additional individuals.

It wouldn’t mean that we could help everyone, but it would mean that there would be sufficient legal services to meet the crisis legal needs of our low-income neighbors. It would mean a much more equal justice system. I propose that such a level of support from attorneys would also demonstrate such a commitment to equal justice that other doors to funding would spring open. Such leadership by attorneys could lead to a community partnership for justice.

Thank you for taking the time to read this and I encourage you to participate in the Fifty-Fifty Plan.

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