pro bono service is an important responsibility and obligation that
attaches to the privilege of being an attorney. This expectation of
service and public-spirited action is not limited to a particular kind
of attorney engaged in a specific type of practice, but instead to all
attorneys. Whether a litigator, a corporate lawyer, a specialist in
administrative hearings, a noted transactional guru, a master at
mediation or a leader in IPOs, every attorney has skills that can be
used to assist individuals in the community to vindicate rights and
realize benefits that otherwise might elude them.
Giving back to the community and improving the
administration of justice through pro bono contributions is at the
heart of styling oneself a professional. Thus, the practice of the
profession of law encompasses far more than the business of running a
law firm. It demands more than that a lawyer competently represent
clients, draw up necessary papers or negotiate a favorable outcome.
The title of professional requires that in daily
practice, an attorney strive to transcend the demands of the moment to
consider the greater good. Lawyers are not simply representatives or
employees of their clients - they are officers of the court. That
denomination reminds us that a lawyer's obligations flow not only to
the client but to the courts and to the system of justice of which
they are an integral part.
Too often, we see lawyers portrayed as focused
solely on the bottom line, instead of on improving the society in
which they function. Fortunately, the rumors of the death of
professionalism are extremely premature. Law can be an excellent way
to earn a living. But making a profit is not inconsistent with making
a difference that cannot be measured by money alone.
The plight of litigants without lawyers in our
courts is not a new one, but it has intensified. In some areas of the
law, particularly family law, the vast majority of cases have no
lawyer involvement at all. For many other individuals, the cost of a
lawyer puts the help they need beyond reach - even though that may
mean foregoing benefits to which these individuals are entitled -
and that can make the difference between barely surviving, if at all,
and doing all right.
One major step the Judicial Council has taken is
the creation of a self-help website to provide information about the
court system, and basic forms and procedural information that can
assist the layperson in navigating some of the difficult legal
landscape. This website - www.courtinfo.ca.gov/selfhelp
- provides information on legal services providers and on where to
turn for legal assistance, as well as information for the individual
who intends to proceed without counsel. It also helps those with
counsel better understand the process and what lies ahead in a
particular matter so that these persons may work in closer
coordination with the lawyer they have.
Started in late July, the website has had well
over a million hits already. The response from laypersons, lawyers and
service providers alike has been extremely positive. This site is
further proof, if further proof were needed, of the unmet legal needs
of too many members of the public.
We in the court system are working to provide
tools to assist individuals in vindicating their rights under our
legal system - and a task force on self-represented litigants that I
appointed is just getting underway in its efforts to seek other means
of making a difference for those who cannot afford legal
representation but have a problem that requires the assistance of the
The hard work of individual attorneys up and down
the state is an essential component without which we cannot succeed in
making progress in improving access to our courts. No further studies
are needed to confirm the importance of the pro bono contributions
made every day by lawyers to individuals who lives are changes by the
assistance they receive.
column is excerpted from remarks the chief justice made at the
President's Pro Bono Awards reception at the State Bar's annual
meeting last month.