Your Voice

Social justice meets Pro Bono Week: What is your plan?

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Matthew Keenan

Matthew Keenan.

Thirty-five years ago, I was a know-nothing 25-year-old associate at Shook, Hardy & Bacon, where I still practice, when a senior partner asked me to take a case on behalf of a single parent.

Her name was Andrea. She had been referred to our law firm from Kansas Legal Services. I helped her obtain child support and then later assisted her when she became pregnant and sought an open adoption with her second son. After that, she wanted a name change; I helped her with that, too. I then connected her with Catholic Charities to help get her apartment furnished. In the course of my advocacy for Andrea, I learned a lot more than I ever did in law school.

Twenty-five years later, I was hosting a public event, and a woman greeted me and asked, “Do you remember me?” I was flustered because I could not place her. “I’m Andrea,” she said. I gave her a bear hug and suddenly I needed a Kleenex. She was doing very well and told me what a difference it made to have the help of an attorney.

Years later, I have had the privilege of representing many other clients like Andrea, who live below the poverty line: from mothers and fathers in jeopardy of losing their parental rights, to teenagers from troubled homes, to infants where I served as the guardian ad litem, to prisoners seeking their day in court.

Behind every legal matter, file or case there are toddlers, teens, mothers and fathers who need a good advocate.

When the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service initially proposed the idea of Pro Bono Week in 2009, the idea initially met some resistance.

“There were questions about the value of a nationally coordinated strategy for recognizing pro bono,” David F. Bienvenu, the chair of the standing committee told me recently. “We believed that the initiative, focusing on local projects held during a designated time frame, would capture the interest and energy of the legal community.”

That confidence has borne fruit over the past 12 years, Bienvenu said, with thousands of event sponsors and individuals supporting more than 10,000 events in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia and Canada.

In 2009, the country was in the middle of a recession, President Barack Obama had just been inaugurated, and the challenges to the underserved communities were seemingly everywhere. The similarities to 2020 are readily apparent, and more than 10 years later, the social justice inequities do not seem diminished in the least.

Legal inequities disproportionately impact minorities. For instance, people of color lack counsel in employment matters by a factor of two compared to white people. Likewise, studies indicate that Black and brown communities are at a higher risk to face the threat of eviction. Having a place to call home offers a sense of security and stability that cannot be truly measured. A home is not a luxury; it is a basic human right.

Sadly, today’s unforgiving economic climate has created a housing insecurity crisis that affects millions of Americans, and would-be homebuyers are dealing with escalating housing prices, while renters face displacement because of job losses from COVID-19.

The Legal Services Corp., created by Congress in 1974, is the largest funder of 132 legal aid programs that represent clients who live below the poverty line. LSC funds civil legal aid programs, employing more than 68,000 attorneys in 855 offices nationwide, servicing every congressional district and U.S. territory. Part of their mission is to work with outside firms and attorneys to help connect them with the right clients for their specialty.

Our firm partners with LSC in a variety of cases. One prominent initiative in Kansas City, Missouri, is the Adopt-A-Neighborhood. It is a collaborative project between Legal Aid of Western Missouri and law firms. The program offers assistance on quality-of-life issues to individuals, home associations and other groups that serve neighborhoods.

So, this all begs the question: Do you currently represent a pro bono client?

LSC-funded legal services organizations can find you the perfect client who fits your interests, calendar and the existing docket. Presently the most pressing needs are in eviction prevention, protection from domestic violence and claims for unemployment benefits.

Eve Runyon is the president and CEO of Pro Bono Institute, where she has worked for 15 years. Runyon has traveled throughout the U.S. discussing strategies for initiating and sustaining pro bono and improving access to justice. “The challenges now are greater than ever. I encourage you to get involved and find an organization that can match your skills with the right client.”

Your local LSC agencies might have a case like one handled by Southeast Louisiana Legal Services. “We had a disabled veteran who spent his career defending his country and putting his life on the line for his fellow Americans,” said SLLS Executive Director Laura Tuggle.

“Learning the importance of discipline and responsibility during his career as a service member, he wanted to be able to raise his grandson Kyle with these kinds of values,” Tuggle added. “Kyle’s mother was a drug addict, and his father was in prison, so this client hoped to adopt his grandson.”

SLLS pro bono attorney Cynthia Bordonaro obtained the consent of both parents for an adoption.

“Today, Kyle has a stable, forever home with his grandfather, who is the kind of upstanding role model a child needs,” Tuggle said.

Or consider another case from the Legal Services of Northern Virginia. They had a client seeking a divorce from her husband after suffering many years of abuse throughout their marriage. The husband would often show up at her job and make threats. She was too intimidated to take any action.

Legal Services of Northern Virginia referred this client to a pro bono attorney who worked with the opposing party to agree and sign off on a divorce. Since then, the client moved away, found a new day job, and spends her nights working as a live-in caregiver.

You can make a change in the lives of those most impacted by the crises of today, whether they are facing the harms of the pandemic or the injustices of racial inequality.

I encourage you to raise your hand and take on a new client. Your LSC-funded legal aid organization is probably just a couple miles away, with a family just waiting for your assistance.

Yes, your talents will change your new client’s life—and will likely change yours as well.

Matthew Keenan is a partner at Shook, Hardy & Bacon where he has practiced for 35 years. In addition to his pro bono practice, he defends drug and medical device companies. He formerly was on the board of Legal Aid of Western Missouri and now is a board member of the Legal Services Corp. is accepting queries for original, thoughtful, nonpromotional articles and commentary by unpaid contributors to run in the Your Voice section. Details and submission guidelines are posted at “Your Submissions, Your Voice.”

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