Standing Up For Justice

Stakeholder Meeting Convenes with the
President of the American Bar Association and the
Area’s Top Legal Minds to Talk About Pro Bono Work

The Pro Bono Project brought together 60+ of the metro area’s top lawyers and jurists to meet with American Bar Association President Linda Klein and Louisiana State Bar Foundation President-Elect Valerie Bargas on Friday, April 7th to talk about how to build a stronger pro bono partnership.  The group met at the Hale Boggs Federal Courthouse in the courtroom of The Honorable Jay Zainey, Judge, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana.

With Judge Zainey and The Project’s Board Chair, Caroline McSherry Dolan taking the lead, the conversation centered on how private bar attorneys can better partner with non-profits, such as The Pro Bono Project, to serve the growing number of low-income families and individuals who need civil legal problems resolved. This concern may become even more pressing if the proposed federal budget cuts to, or elimination of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) pass in Congress.

“In 2016, The Project provided legal services to more than 2,500 low-income individuals, realizing an economic value to the community of $2.9 million dollars. Our private bar lawyer volunteers donated more than 10,000 hours and closed over 1,200 cases. We’re on track to handle at least the same number, if not more, in 2017,” said Ms. Dolan.

The Justice Gap

The "justice gap" is real – more than 60 million low-income Americans need civil legal services and just cannot afford to hire a lawyer to resolve their legal problem. Nationally, for every 6,400 potential low-income clients, there is only one (1) legal aid attorney; in the private sector, there is only one (1) private attorney providing volunteer legal services for every 429 potential clients.

ABA President Linda Klein

ABA President Linda Klein

"‘Justice for all' is not just a pretty phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance. It is a promise we make – and keep – to every American,” said  the American Bar Association’s President Linda Klein.

Ms. Klein went on to address how organizations like The Pro Bono Project keep the doors of justice wide open for those who need it and why private bar attorneys have an obligation to share their legal expertise to those underserved within our communities.

“We can all admire what organizations like The Pro Bono Project do, and the service they inspire, and the ABA was proud to provide seed money toward its founding more than 20 years ago. Since then, The Pro Bono Project has brought hope to survivors of domestic violence, obtained help for unaccompanied children in immigration proceedings, protected senior citizens from exploitation, and alleviated stress and anxiety for thousands of poor Americans.

“Many attorneys take pro bono cases because it reminds us of why we began practicing law in the first place – to help others. And it reminds us of our Constitutional obligation to advance the cause of justice and the rule of law. It makes good moral sense. It makes good ethical sense. And research has shown that what makes good moral and ethical sense, happily, improves business results,” Ms. Klein noted. 

The Impact of Poverty In Louisiana

Louisiana Bar Foundation President-Elect Valerie Bargas

Louisiana Bar Foundation President-Elect Valerie Bargas

“Nearly 20% of Louisiana citizens live in poverty. We rank among the highest in the nation. Louisiana is one of only a few states in which civil legal services receive no state appropriation of funds.

"For the last six years, civil legal aid organizations in Louisiana sustained a significant drop in state and federal funding while the poverty rate has increased. These funding declines, combined with the high poverty, put our already challenged civil legal aid system in crisis,” explained the incoming Louisiana Bar Foundation President Valerie Bargas.

At the request of the Louisiana Legislature, the Access to Justice Commission conducted an Economic Impact and Social Return on Investment Analysis (SROI) funded by the Louisiana Bar Foundation to determine the economic impact on the state of dollars spent on Louisiana’s civil legal aid providers. The SROI showed that the dollars invested are well spent, and deliver unmistakable economic returns to the state. Key findings include:

  • In the fiscal year 2016, Louisiana's civil legal aid organizations assisted 26,437 legal matters, consisting of over 100 types of civil legal problems including family law, housing, healthcare, public benefits, consumer protection, community support issues, government and legal system issues.
  • The net economic impact value resulting from Louisiana civil legal aid activities during the year totaled $93,977,000.
  • The total net social return on investment for Louisiana’s civil legal aid programs during the 2016 fiscal year was 873%.
  • For every $1.00 invested in Louisiana’s civil legal aid services, these programs deliver $8.73 in immediate and long-term consequential financial benefits.

Ms. Bargas went on to give an impassioned plea to the New Orleans bar about the need for more involvement with The Project in taking pro bono cases, noting that the Baton Rouge bar is more active than their New Orleans colleagues. She also reminded the group that as lawyers, they could do what no one else can do – provide legal services. And, while that may seem like a small thing, to someone who needs civil legal help for a problem they cannot solve without a lawyer, it is life-changing.

The New Orleans Caseload and the Feared Impact of Potential Federal Funding Cuts

The New Orleans caseload is the largest in the state. Proposed elimination of LSC funding by the current administration will shift all the responsibility for these cases to the private sector and non-profit groups such as The Pro Bono Project. The Project’s Executive Director, Jennifer Rizzo-Choi, is concerned about the negative impact of these funding cuts on clients, and that is why The Project is working to increase each firm’s pro bono time commitment.

The Project's Executive Director, Jennifer Rizzo-Choi with Linda Klein (l) and The Honorable Jay Zainey (r)

The Project's Executive Director, Jennifer Rizzo-Choi with Linda Klein (l) and The Honorable Jay Zainey (r)

Judge Zainey and Ms. Rizzo-Choi led a lively discussion with attendees on how The Project can better serve the needs of both the law firms and the courts. As expected, law firm leaders did not hold back in their comments, offering ideas to strengthen their partnership with The Project.

One area in which the law leaders asked for help with is in working with the courts to schedule pro bono cases early on the daily docket. Whether part of a big law firm or a solo practitioner, waiting all day to be called on a pro bono case discourages lawyers from wanting to volunteer.

Both Judge Zainey and Ms. Rizzo-Choi spoke about how important it is for the law firm leaders to set an example for young lawyers. “By taking a case or mentoring a young lawyer through a case, leadership demonstrates their support of and helps to establish pro bono work as part of a firm's culture. It also shows that the folks at the top understand the importance of pro bono to the community,” said Ms. Rizzo-Choi.

The day’s event opened the doors to further the discussion about pro bono and how the law firms and individual lawyers within the metro New Orleans area can work in tandem with The Pro Bono Project to address the continually growing legal needs of our community.

In the coming weeks, staff and board members will follow-up with in-person visits to extend the conversation. It is our intention to find ways in which The Project can help the firms and their individual lawyers take a more active role in what the ABA's President, Linda Klein said is "our Constitutional obligation to advance the cause of justice and the rule of law."

Photos: Jennifer Rizzo-Choi