Vol. 30, No. 2
CBA President's Message to Members
Lawyers of the Year
by Dale R. Harris
In a year of considerable good lawyering, we also honor,
for the first time, the courage, heroism and a devotion to
professional duty that many otherwise unsung
lawyers exhibited in pro bono cases.
—The National Law Journal
At the end of last year, The National Law Journal made its annual "Lawyers of the Year" awards.1 It would be hard to argue that the winners—the lawyers for the Gore and Bush election teams—were undeserving. Their outstanding work on issues of enormous consequence, under the most extreme time pressures and stressful conditions, reminds us once again that lawyers and courts are the linchpins of a free society. But the stories that really hit home were about the pro bono cases handled by lawyers like Houieda Saad and Parker Wilson. Saad, a Washington, D.C., lawyer, sold her house so she could afford the more than 2,000 hours she devoted to the successful representation of an accused terrorist. Wilson, a retired corporate attorney in Dallas, agreed in 1982 to help an immigrant refugee seeking asylum in this country. For the next eighteen years he volunteered his time, six days a week, evenings included, to help thousands of other refugees.
There are similar stories in Colorado. A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of presenting a certificate of appreciation to Colorado Springs lawyer W. A. Masters, a retired oil and gas attorney well past his 80th birthday, who volunteered over 2,000 hours last year alone to help indigent clients. Many other Colorado lawyers can be proud of their record of commitment to pro bono causes. For example, The National Law Journal also listed which of the 250 largest law firms had donated at least 3 percent of their billable time to pro bono efforts. Second on that list of forty-one firms was Denver’s Holland & Hart, with 6.6 percent. Also listed were national firms with Colorado offices, including Baker & Hostetler; LeBoeuf Lamb Greene & MacRae; Patton Boggs; Dorsey & Whitney; and Faegre & Benson.
I applaud the commitment of these lawyers and these firms. They are doing what many other firms and solo practitioners are doing—meeting the professional responsibility of lawyers reflected in the oath we take on admission to the bar and contained in Rule 6.1 of the Rules of Professional Conduct. I believe lawyers, on the whole, are among the most generous professionals in giving their time and financial support to various professional and community causes. We need only look at the numbers of lawyers who serve on non-profit boards and who volunteer in their schools, religious organizations, and other community endeavors. All of these activities are important to the well-being of our neighborhoods and the broader community.
But, clearly, more needs to be done to meet the individual legal needs of the poor in this country. Access to even the most basic and minimum justice is simply foreclosed to far too many people. It is unclear whether on a national basis the amount of pro bono work for clients who cannot afford a lawyer is on the decline, holding steady, or even increasing. The story in The National Law Journal cites conflicting survey evidence supporting each of these scenarios. What does seem clear is that not enough Colorado lawyers are stepping up to help meet the undeniable need. According to American Bar Association statistics, in 1999, only about 1,600 of the more than 19,000 lawyers in Colorado took a pro bono case. In metro Denver, MetroVolunteer Lawyers ("MVL") records show that the number of volunteers has declined from nearly 800 in 1994 to about 435 in 1999.
A number of organized efforts are under way to try to open the doors of justice to more needy people in Colorado. For example, the courts are experimenting with various approaches to handling family law matters and with the provision of more resources to help pro se parties get through the system. Bar leaders are exploring ways to increase the amount of funding available to Colorado Legal Services.2 The CBA Pro Bono Task Force and others are working to establish volunteer pro bono committees, including judges, in all of the judicial districts to develop and implement a pro bono plan for the district. "Access to Justice" conferences are being sponsored by the law schools and the Colorado Bar Association.
These efforts are necessary and need our support if they are going to be successful. But more than that, each one of us simply needs to take the personal responsibility to do our share. There are always excuses not to take a case—"I’m too busy," or "Pro bono hours don’t count toward my billable hour targets," or "The cases aren’t in my area of expertise." I have used most of these excuses at one time or another. It is time to put the excuses aside and do what we know we should do.
Denver Bar Association President Susan Smith Fisher and the DBA Board of Trustees have set the right tone for all of us. Each lawyer-member of the Board pledged to take a new pro bono case by January 31, 2001. And they came to the CBA Board of Governors in December and challenged us to make a similar commitment. The Board responded with a resolution urging each member of the Board to take at least one new pro bono case in the next twelve months.
I am filling out the forms to take a Metro Volunteer Lawyers pro bono case as I write this column. Why don’t you do the same? We won’t be able to solve the problem of the under-served, but, if all of the CBA members would come along, there would be almost 14,000 more people who have a lawyer to help them out this year. That would make us all "Lawyers of the Year."
1. See "Lawyers of the Year," The National Law J. (Dec. 25, 2000-Jan. 1, 2001) at A7; "Pro Bono in 2000," The National Law J. (Dec. 25, 2000-Jan. 1, 2001) at A10-A18.
2. According to recent ABA statistics, funding for Colorado Legal Services from all sources last year totaled slightly more than $6.5 million. That works out to be $17.37 per person for each of the approximately 375,000 people in Colorado classified as eligible to receive free legal services.
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