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Bar News - November 16, 2012

Opinion: Addressing Unmet Legal Needs in NH: The Role of Pro Bono

The following are remarks by NH Supreme Court Chief Justice Linda Stewart Dalianis at the Bruce Friedman Pro Bono Award ceremony at the UNH School of Law on Oct. 16, 2012. The NH Bar wishes to thank the UNH School of Law, including Dean John T. Broderick, Jr., and Erin Corcoran, director of its Social Justice Institute, and Chief Justice Linda Dalianis for their support of this highlight of our first-ever Pro Bono Month.

It is an honor to be asked to speak here today at the first presentation of the New Hampshire Bar Association’s Bruce E. Friedman Pro Bono Award. I knew Bruce. He was a thoughtful, brilliant man with an abiding commitment to the highest ideals of our profession. I commend your selection of Marilyn Billings McNamara as the recipient of this award in his name. Marilyn’s many years of dedication to equal access to justice for all New Hampshire residents, and her leadership in the Pro Bono effort, is a record worthy of our recognition, and our admiration. Thank you, Marilyn, for all you have done for your fellow citizens, especially those low-income families and children, whose lives were impacted by your devotion to the law as an instrument to help those in need.

There is, as we all know, a justice gap in our country, and in our state. When I look at the numbers, it seems far more than a gap to me. It is a crisis of injustice that we, as lawyers, have a professional obligation to continually recognize and attempt to address.

Here in New Hampshire, the most recent estimates are that there are nearly 150,000 low income residents with legal needs, but we were able to provide low-cost legal services in only about 8,400 cases–just 6 percent of the need. Who are these fellow citizens who make up the population eligible for legal assistance? They are a family of four with an income below $44,000, or a single individual making under $21,000. The majority are women; many are senior citizens. Many are disabled, uninsured, under-employed or just out of work. They need the legal system to try to solve problems that involve the issues of day-to-day existence–family problems, housing needs, consumer issues, a financial crisis, denial of benefits such as social security or food stamps. They arrive in court, on their own, unable to navigate the system. Basic rights are at stake—a place to live, custody of a child–but there are scarce resources to provide any legal help at all. A 2011 survey of our court employees confirmed that the "self-represented population" continues to grow. Seventy-four percent of our employees said the number of pro se litigants has increased over time and continues to increase. These employees report that as many as 70 percent of the litigants they encounter in the courthouse are self-represented.

In New Hampshire, we have an extraordinarily devoted team of lawyers who, like Marilyn McNamara, devote their professional lives to meeting the legal needs of the poor. New Hampshire Legal Assistance and the Legal Advice and Referral Center are in a constant, valiant struggle with state and federal lawmakers for basic funding for the lawyers, paralegals and support staff who dedicate themselves, selflessly, every day, to helping their fellow citizens with their legal problems.

Today, with the Bruce Friedman Pro Bono Award, we honor another core element of the effort in our state to address the legal needs of the low income citizens. Each year, hundreds of New Hampshire lawyers generously volunteer their time and expertise to the NH Bar’s Pro Bono Referral Program. On behalf of the Supreme Court, I want to thank each and every one of those lawyers who use their legal skills to help someone in need solve a problem, preserve a family, pay the rent or put food on the table.

As a judge for nearly all of my career, I was not subject to the weight of "billable hours" and "accounts receivable," but I know full well the pressure that comes with legal practice, especially in today’s marketplace. I am aware, too, that there are those who think that asking lawyers to donate some valuable professional time to help meet the demand for legal services, because it is the right thing to do, is just too idealistic an approach. Let me share with you some reflections by retired United States Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. She offers another way to look at pro bono services, as an obligation to the public that we assume when we take the oath as lawyers.

In a chapter on professionalism in her book, The Majesty of the Law, Justice O’Connor acknowledges what we all know–that many lawyers are dissatisfied with their careers, not just because of the long hours and hard work, or the decline in civility in the practice and among our colleagues. But, she wrote, what goes to the heart of what it means to be a lawyer is that many lawyers question "whether at the end of the day, they have contributed anything worthwhile to society." How would you answer that?

For Justice O’Connor the answer is straightforward: as professionals we have an ethical obligation to use our skills and training not just for our own gain, but also for the community that we serve. Lawyers, she wrote, "possess the key to justice under a Rule of Law—the key that opens the courtroom door. That key is not held for lawyers’ private purposes. It is held in trust for those who would seek justice, rich and poor alike."

"I can imagine no greater duty than fulfilling this obligation," Justice O’Connor wrote, " And I can imagine no greater pleasure."

She recalled that Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in his essay, "The Path of the Law," said that "Happiness... cannot be won simply by being counsel for great corporations and having an income of fifty thousand dollars" — certainly a fortune when this was published in the Harvard Law Review in 1897. Holmes continued: "An intellect great enough to win the prize needs other food besides success."

More than 100 years later, Justice O’Connor placed this truth about the legal profession in the context of what she called "a great and crying need for legal services to the poor." In her words, "Ensuring that there is, indeed, ‘equal justice under law’— not just for the wealthy but also for the poor, the disadvantaged and the disenfranchised — is the sustenance that brings meaning and joy to a lawyer’s professional life."

To those New Hampshire lawyers who have experienced the satisfaction, maybe even happiness, in helping a fellow citizen solve a legal problem, I again offer my thanks and my admiration. And for those lawyers who wonder at the end of the day what they have contributed to society, I suggest that you consider offering your skills to someone in need and you will find your answer.

Finally, to the newest members of the New Hampshire Bar, who will take the oath in just a few weeks, I hope that they, too, will be inspired by the true meaning of "equal justice under law" and make service to their fellow citizens a part of their professional lives. Our obligation is to set the example for them, and carry that message forward, for the community we serve.

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