To the Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel :
As we celebrate Law Day across the nation, it is a good time to catch our breath and reflect on the role lawyers play in today's society. The role of the legal profession (and every individual attorney) in a democratic society cannot be overstated.Justice, after all, is the foundation upon which democratic societies are built. And we in the legal profession are the guardians of that justice. What we do as lawyers and judges affects the most basic elements of democracy. When we speak for those without voice, when we fight for a fair and honest judicial system, when we strive to improve the law and our profession, we strengthen the very foundation of our democracy.
In every era, in every country, there are challenges to goals of achieving a fair and just society through the establishment of a fair and just legal system, and New York City has not been spared these challenges. Scandals in our city government and the judiciary led to the founding of the New York City Bar Association in 1876. Today's challenges include our country's shameful infringement of basic civil rights and lawless treatment of detainees in the name of the war on terror. And here in New York, the challenge includes meeting our responsibility to provide adequate pro bono representation to the underrepresented.In these and many other situations our society desperately needs us to speak out and take action, and I am proud to be among so many that have accepted the responsibility to do so.
A judicial system cannot be said to be fair and equitable unless everyone is given meaningful access to it. Sadly, the common wisdom here in the United States is that the judicial system favors the wealthy; that the poor are not given a fair shake. Unfortunately,there is a great deal of truth to this perception.
Approximately 95 percent of tenants fighting eviction and often homelessness go unrepresented. Approximately 61 percent of litigants in Family Court go unrepresented. Despite the pressing need, only 46 percent of New York State attorneys performed pro bono work for the poor in 2002 (latest figures), and only 27 percent performed more than 20 hours of it.
The New York City Bar has taken the lead, and hopes to set examples, in creating a number of innovative programs to expand public interest law and legal assistance to the poor. Our City Bar Justice Center, the legal services arm of the Bar Association, has vastly expanded pro bono opportunities for New York City attorneys seeking to give something back to the community. The Justice Center has a strong track record of helping disadvantaged populations in New York improve their access to justice and, thus, their situation in society. Groups that benefit from the Justice Center's many legal-assistance projects include: immigrants, battered women, the homeless, the elderly, cancer survivors, consumers filing for bankruptcy and struggling small-business owners. Achievements on behalf of these groups are due in large part to the strong collaborative relationships the City Bar Justice Center forges with the private bar, legal aid providers and other public service organizations.
But again, there is more we, as a profession, can do. It is our responsibility to bring in volunteers, facilitate training, and run worthwhile programs that make the most of our resources. We need to encourage law firms to promote pro bono work among their attorneys. Finally, we need to do more to assist pro se litigants, particularly in housing and family courts - a group in dire need of our help. We need to do more. Please help.