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Bar Journal - December 1, 2003

Pro Bono or No Pro Bono: What's the Difference?


I am well aware that most of the lawyers who open the cover of this edition of the Bar Journal have already demonstrated an interest in the Pro Bono Program. So, I'm preaching to the choir, yes, preaching. In fact, if you actually read the article on the 25th anniversary of the Pro Bono Program, you may skip the next sermon if you so desire.

My hope is, however, that someone will read this article who has never embarked on the Pro Bono journey and will be moved to try - just once. If one person picks up one case, my work here is worthwhile.

I was in Seattle recently. Two friends and I escaped from the conference hotel and went in search of a little restaurant we had noted from the previous afternoon. We were wandering a bit, it was dark, and one of the others led us into a nearby hotel to ask the concierge for directions. He was happy to give them to us, but then he asked, "You ladies aren't walking are you?"

"Oh, yes, we are," we said, with our Yankee sturdiness showing. Whereupon he advised us to go to the nice place right across the street. It seemed the area around our intended restaurant wasn't safe at night. Too many homeless people.

Seattle is a beautiful city, but it has too many homeless people. How did this happen? How did it happen in Washington, DC, or in New York or Boston or Manchester, New Hampshire? How have we learned to turn away from obvious need without so much as a flicker of guilt? How is it that we, the wealthiest nation in the world, have decided that a certain portion of our population is so unruly, so difficult, so undeserving that it is acceptable for them live in the rain and the cold and the danger of the streets?

I give money to street people. I don't do it all the time, and rarely if at all when I'm with other people. I know the reasons not to do it; that it will only encourage them, that they probably have more money than I do, that they'll just drink it or snort it or shoot it into their veins. But, when faced with a poor person on the street holding a little sign or holding out a cup, I often cave. I cannot distinguish the truly needy from the fraudulent so I choose to give money without discrimination. In Seattle, in the safety of the next daylight, I walked down to the public market and I gave some dollars out to the homeless men. I wasn't driven by charity; I was driven by anger and a sense of helplessness.

Not counting those in government, there are probably 1,500 attorneys in private practice in New Hampshire who are not involved in the Pro Bono Program. These are decent, hardworking people who have good reasons not to give of their time. Pro Bono clients can be too demanding, there's too much paperwork, the timing is never quite right, the work is outside their area of expertise, and so on. The 1,000 lawyers who do provide services have the same barriers; so what is the difference?

Though I have examined the issue, I have yet to see any one thing that distinguishes me from a poor person except that I have enough money. I'm no smarter, I work no harder, I'm not nicer or kinder or more attractive than the average poor person. In truth, I've done nothing to earn my place in society. I simply had stable well-educated parents and accepted all that has come from that lucky circumstance. Others bore the hardship that brought me to this country and this place.

Representing poor people has always been, for me, a way to honor the sacrifices of those in my family who came before me. I put some of their pictures1 up on my office wall so they can gaze at me with high expectations. I have to do this. When I enrolled in law school my father told me that I had a duty to live by what I had been taught, and to stay on the path of what was right, not merely legal. Without that assurance, he could not approve of my career path. I play to a tough crowd.

I don't think Pro Bono lawyers are better people than those who do not serve; I know I'm certainly not. I don't think they have special circuitry designed to make them more able to manage poor clients, or have the patience to fill out the paperwork or negotiate a case in an unfamiliar area of the law. What they do have is the ability to see and understand need even when it isn't squarely in front of them and heed the call to meet that need in spite of all the good reasons not to.

Intentionally giving away legal services is a far more difficult act than tossing a dollar into a cup. Lawyers who ignore all the good reasons not to give away their time and money are the ones most in need of the screening and support they receive from participating in the Pro Bono Program. While the system is hardly perfect, it does assure lawyers that some attempt has been made to screen the clients for financial eligibility and case service issues.

I cannot solve our social problems, but I am not willing to feel helpless in the face of poverty. I hope you are not, either. If every practicing lawyer in this state took one Pro Bono case each year, whether family, housing, consumer, senior needs or impact work, we could be the first state in this country to say that we have fully met the legal needs of our poor. That's all it takes. It's up to you.


  1. The portraits are of four of my ancestors, including my 8th great-grandfather who was a soldier for Napoleon, was captured at Salamanca, Spain and shipped to Canada, where he was impressed into service by the British in the War of 1812. He escaped or walked away in Eastport, Maine, and eventually married a Maine woman from an old Scots family. He's handsome and dashing; she's-well-a bit daunting. Two other ancestors are Theodore Bean Johnson and Delia Emery Johnson-he doctored among the islands off the coast of Maine later in the 19th century.

The Author


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