From The Project’s Chair and Executive Director: Setting the 2017 Agenda

Building a stronger culture of pro bono within the six parishes served by The Pro Bono Project, and across the state of Louisiana sets the stage for 2017 as a year of collaboration, community, and access to justice.

At the same time, The Project will take a cue from the national dialogue on access to justice (“ATJ”) and what that means to us as individuals, and as an organization.

We are working hard to make sure that 2017 will be a year of increased volunteer recruitment and enhanced pro bono mentoring for our volunteers.

As a part of all this, we plan to use some key events to begin a larger dialogue about how all Louisiana lawyers can work with us to close the justice gap.

The justice gap is larger than you realize…

As we look at the potential political and economic landscape taking shape, there is without a doubt a growing need for legal aid. In the past, those in need of pro bono, or reduced cost civil legal services, tended to be those adults, children, seniors, veterans and homeless who live at or below the poverty level. But we have seen this changing in the last several years – more and more people in populations that typically do not fit this picture may now fall into this gap.

In LSBA President Darrel Papillion’s President’s Message in The Louisiana Bar Journal’s December 2016/January 2017 Access to Justice issue, page 256, [LINK: ] he described a hypothetical 30-something couple, Mary and John, living the American Dream: two kids, a house, nice car, well-paying jobs, some modest savings and so on.

He points out that Mary and John are not the typical people who may face an “Access to Justice” problem. We likely picture a single mom working the night shift, the uneducated, the elderly with credit or Social Security problems, tenants with landlord issues, victims of domestic abuse, or veterans in need of help with benefits. In fact, our picture is of the poorest among us, not the Marys and Johns of the world. Mr. Papillion concludes his scenario with this chilling thought:

Our perception of the “Access to Justice” problem may be at the heart of one of the biggest challenges facing the legal profession, courts and the general public for years to come. Are we reaching a point where most Americans cannot afford lawyers? Surely this is a scary thought. But, let me phrase it another way — how many of us could afford ourselves? [emphasis added]

And it is that perception of “Access To Justice” (ATJ) that is driving The Project to focus more on how we presently serve our community, clients, and state -- and how that may change as populations in need change.

Collaborating with our fellow non-profits on Access to Justice

Our focus today is on what must we do to collaborate more with our fellow non-profit organizations, and how we can begin to reshape the culture of pro bono in Louisiana to ensure that access to justice is more than just a lofty platitude.

Board Chair Caroline McSherry Dolan, along with many of The Project's current and past board and staff members have been actively involved in the ATJ community by attending meetings and an ATJ summit to move the discussion around these issues into actionable programs.

“As the largest volunteer-driven pro bono organization in the state, we are at the forefront of access to justice. Just one visit to The Project’s offices or a few hours spent at the 24th JDC Self Help Desk and you can see first-hand exactly how many people – families, individuals, children, etc. – are caught in the justice gap. For many who do not meet the rigorous income requirements to be eligible for pro bono, they are forced to represent themselves.

“We serve as the connector between lawyers/law firms and clients and that is our primary role. But, as important, is our ability to collaborate with the many other civil legal aid providers to create a single-minded and determined voice, which brings this story to greater attention within the legal community, as well as the business, governmental and community-at-large. We are prepared to take a leadership role to shift the discussion and the culture around pro bono and access to justice – to produce action from our words,” explains Ms. Dolan.

In a recent meeting with Louisiana Bar Foundation (LBF) Vice-President Valerie Briggs Bargas, she described The Project as “an island of blue in a state of red” to Executive Director Jennifer Rizzo-Choi. She praised The Project for the number of cases it handles annually with only a staff of eight, a $700,000 budget, and in 2016, approximately 400 active private bar volunteers. The Project, a creation of the LBF, forged a pro bono path over 30 years ago where no one thought it possible.

“We are wholeheartedly committed to serving our clients and the community through volunteer private bar attorneys and strengthening this unique model that has worked well for both volunteers and clients. In 2016, we opened 2,172 cases, closed 1,206 of those and served about 3,000 individuals and families. Many of those cases are simple – requiring 8-10 hours from a volunteer, other cases are more complex and time-consuming, and a small percentage of our volunteers are available to take those on.

Jennifer Rizzo-Choi Executive Director

Jennifer Rizzo-Choi
Executive Director

“One area that we will continue to expand is in supporting, mentoring and training our volunteers – without them, there is no pro bono. We want more of our volunteers to take an active role in closing the justice gap in our community. Take a case, serve at a clinic, mentor younger attorneys, share your knowledge through a CLE – The Project is that place where the legal community can get involved on a one-on-one level with the community at large and with their colleagues,” says Ms. Rizzo-Choi.

The Pro Bono Project is a resource …

Where else can a young attorney get trial experience? Who else offers attorneys the opportunity to expand their skills into a different area of the law?  Or provide younger attorneys with experience in a variety of legal areas from which they may choose to steer their careers? Or offers law students a way to see first-hand how the theories and case law they are studying translates into legal realities? Or brings lawyers directly in contact with people they would never meet in their offices and who end up reminding those lawyers about why they chose to become lawyers?

These are but a few of the roles The Project plays in the bringing the culture of pro bono to life for lawyers, law students, other legal professionals and the community at large. While service to clients is our primary role, it is also our job to educate, nurture and be a resource for those in the legal profession who want to serve the public interest in this way. Through all of this, we want to encourage them to bring the message of pro bono to others. Pro bono is a powerful avenue to raise awareness for the entire community about access to justice issues, and how important an active pro bono legal community is to growth, prosperity, and justice for all.

Upcoming events will put the focus on pro bono

Linda Klein ABA President

Linda Klein
ABA President

As part of our efforts to celebrate the power of pro bono in our community, we are also engaging some key national and local leaders to help us.

In April, we are hosting an access to justice-themed event featuring the current American Bar Association President, Linda Klein. Ms. Klein is intimately involved in the national ATJ discussion and will bring it down to the ‘you and me’ level for our guests. We’ll have more details in the coming weeks.

As well, even our 2017 Justice For All Ball will reflect an access to justice theme through our Honorary Chair: Chef Leah Chase.  This local icon, business leader, and chef is well known as the Queen of Creole Cuisine. But, many may not remember that Mrs. Chase, along with a group of her contemporaries, was at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s in New Orleans.

Chef Leah Chase JFAB 2017 Honorary Chair

Chef Leah Chase
JFAB 2017 Honorary Chair

Her restaurant Dooky Chase's was one of the only public places in the city where African-Americans could discuss meet and discuss strategies during those days. As is the custom in New Orleans, over good food with close friends,

Mrs. Chase and many others worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Freedom Riders to forward the cause of justice in this country. Her contribution to securing voter registration within the African-American community and a host of other civil rights-related activities are too numerous to recount here but you can read more about her at: Leah Chase

Setting an ambitious agenda in 2017

While this may seem an ambitious agenda for 2017, it is our hope that working together with our fellow civil legal aid providers, the private bar, and law firms will foster a greater understanding of pro bono and access to justice issues, here and across the state. By bringing all these groups together in a way that serves our profession, we further believe that our resulting activities will positively affect our clients and volunteers, while elevating our community to a greater commitment to the cause of justice for all.