On pro bono, don’t shoot the messenger

I have enormous respect for the opinions of Carolyn Elefant, but I am at a loss to understand her taking aim at the American Bar Association (Can We Lawyers Please Stop Patting Ourselves on The Back?) for its first-ever national survey of lawyers’ pro bono activity. (See my earlier post about the survey.)

Maybe it’s the journalist in me, but I believe strongly that the more information we have about a problem, the better we understand it, and the better we understand a problem, the better we are equipped to tackle it. As I read the news release and the survey report, the survey’s purpose was to add to our understanding of pro bono and access to justice. Carolyn describes the report as “boasting.” But Robert J. Grey Jr., ABA immediate past president, said something quite the opposite of boasting in commenting on the survey:

“The legal needs of the poor go largely unmet. Despite the worthy efforts of legal services and pro bono lawyers, indigent people do not have adequate access to justice. This survey helps us understand pro bono and will allow us to develop more effective strategies to better meet the needs of the poor.”

The survey does not declare, “Problem solved.” Rather, it offers further pieces of the puzzle that may someday lead to a solution. I don’t always agree with the ABA, but over the course of my legal career, it has been a consistently strong force in seeking to improve access to justice and to protect the rights of women and minorities. To attack it for studying a problem seems way off base. In fact, it was ABA research that first helped us understand the scope and severity of unmet legal needs in the United States.

To my mind, lawyers should pat themselves on their collective back for the level of commitment to pro bono revealed by this survey. The fact that so many legal needs continue to be unmet suggests that the problem is far more economically, politically and socially complex than donated hours — or the ABA — could ever hope to solve. We live in a country in which the unmet needs of those with low or moderate incomes go way beyond legal services — to health care, housing, education and more. This is the fault neither of the ABA nor of the lawyers who try to stem the tide.