Letter From The President Of The Boston Bar Association

2007-05-01 01:00

To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel :

On March 15 of this year, more than 500 lawyers assembled at the State House to show their support for the Commonwealth's funding of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC). After hearing a few speeches, they walked the halls of the State House, visiting their legislators to convey their support for this year's MLAC budget request.

Some may not remember the time when indigent legal services were entirely supported by private funding and volunteer work. In 1973, reviewing newly-created legal assistance programs, Boston Bar Association President John G. Brooks wrote: "For the first time in our history there appeared an explicit recognition that there is a public responsibility to provide to the indigent not only subsistence, housing and medical care, but legal assistance as well, and that private philanthropy, through privately-supported Legal Aid Societies and efforts of individual lawyers, was simply inadequate to the task of spreading enough justice throughout our society."

Thirty-four years after John wrote those words, the combination of government-funded legal aid programs and support from the bar still is inadequate to address the need for indigent legal services. MLAC estimates that legal aid providers turn away more than half of all eligible clients. While we continue to press state and federal governments for legal aid funding, it is abundantly clear that the private bar must continue to shoulder its share of this burden.

As I prepared to address the lawyers gathered for the Walk to the Hill, I found this inspiring phrase in our Supreme Judicial Court's Rules of Professional Conduct, in the opening line of the Preamble: "A lawyer is a representative of clients, an officer of the legal system, and a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice."

The words "a special responsibility" have remained with me.After the Walk to the Hill, we all returned to our offices and comfortably resumed our roles as client representatives. We might have closed a deal, filed a brief, or merely had an important conference call with a client by the end of the day. We billed a good number of hours, albeit fewer than on a normal day, and went home to our families for the night. We stopped thinking about homeless mothers, domestic violence victims, and elderly clients without health care.

Does a "Walk to the Hill" suffice to fulfill our special responsibility? Of course not. While we are entitled to the pursuit of successful practices and enjoyment of the fruits of our hard work, we can combine an effective record of pro bono service with our private careers.

There are examples all around us. In 2006, attorneys donated over 14,000 pro bono hours to the Volunteer Lawyers' Project of the BBA, which provides civil legal services to low-income families and individuals. Each year over 1,000 unrepresented litigants are assisted by over 100 volunteer lawyers who participate in the BBA's Lawyer for the Day Program at the Boston Housing Court on summary process day.

Our members are making direct financial contributions as well. I was astonished to learn recently that 88 firms or corporate legal departments contributed over $2.5 million to Greater Boston Legal Services, and that 14 of those firms contributed $700 per lawyer. Through the Boston Bar Foundation's(BBF) Society of Fellows, over 200 BBA members have pledged lifetime commitments of $1,000, $10,000, $25,000, or $50,000 in donations to support the philanthropic work of the BBF, whose annual grants currently help support over 45 civil legal service projects.

John Brooks has given us an example to which every lawyer can aspire, combining a successful life in the law with an extraordinary record of pro bono service. By honoring John's example, we affirm that our role as public citizen is equally as important as any other role we play in the practice of law.

Sincerely,

Jack Cinquegrana