California Bar Journal
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An opportunity to transform lives
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Chief Justice, California Supreme Court
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Courts, to be successful in performing their mission of providing fair and accessible justice, must be sensitive to the public they serve and its diverse make-up and needs. Just a few weeks ago, a report announced that there no longer is a majority population group in California. When we call ourselves Californians, we are declaring ourselves part of a rich and diverse culture. The challenge is for all of us to encourage, learn from, and draw upon the strengths that our shared minority status confers.

For our system of justice, that means at a minimum that our courts must be open and accessible to all the constituent parts of our state’s population. And that requires a cooperative, collaborative approach to improving the administration of justice — and a broader view of what courts must do to accommodate those needing their services.

Individuals without counsel are more and more a reality, especially in family law matters. In some counties, in more than 60 percent of family law cases, neither party is represented. The chance that individuals without counsel will never see their rights vindicated or receive benefits to which they are entitled is a very real one. The crisis of litigants without counsel is one that each of you has the ability to help to alleviate — and it is one that the courts are coping with as well.

Ronald M. George, Chief Justice, California Supreme CourtI was honored to participate in the State Bar’s award ceremony in San Diego honoring the pro bono contributions of lawyers from around the state. It was particularly significant in light of a recent poll showing that each of the 50,000 or so attorneys at the nation’s 100 highest-grossing law firms spend about eight minutes a day on pro bono activities — averaging a grand total of 36 hours per year.

I recognize that the headline-grabbing increases in salaries at many law firms are matched by a gut-wrenching increase in the number of billable hours expected from those earning these high salaries. Yet as Abner Mikva, a former federal judge, observed in a recent op-ed piece, “If neophyte lawyers are only doing well and not doing good, they have reason to feel cheated.” And, I would add, that applies to experienced attorneys as well.

Lawyers whose sole focus is on the bottom line may see their bank accounts grow, but surveys have shown that their job satisfaction is likely to dwindle. Many of us entered the legal profession because we wanted to make a difference — not just in our personal situations, but in society. As someone who has served in the public sector for my entire career, I share Judge Mikva’s sentiment. I would not trade what I have done.

Access and fairness in the courts are not abstract philosophical principles — they are basic to preserving the rule of law.

As lawyers, you are an integral part of the system of justice. Advancing the cause of justice requires the participation of lawyers in protecting and enhancing the system as a whole — not simply the interests of their clients or themselves.

I hope that you will join your peers who were honored by the State Bar and take some time to assist those who otherwise would have no legal assistance. With your skills and experience, you have a unique opportunity to transform lives — including your own.

This column was adapted from Chief Justice George’s State of the Judiciary speech during the State Bar’s Annual Meeting last month.