An obligation, but not a duty

by Timothy Lee Davis

This year I was awarded the Wiley W. Manuel award for pro bono legal services for my voluntary efforts to aid the poor through the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program. The personal satisfaction I received from helping people who needed me easily outstripped the pleasure I received from getting the award.

I found time to donate to the needy. But it's important to point out that I was also able to pick and choose which clients I felt deserved ny help.

I would not have been so pleased to provide help to the client if, by bureaucratic rule, I was required to represent clients to fulfill a dictated 50-hour pro bono schedule. I would have been outraged if I was forced to donate my time and money to someone I didn't want to help.

The underlying idea that forcing already-dedicated men and women to provide pro bono services will somehow benefit society is a fallacy.

While I chose to give more than 50 hours of service over the past year, many of my brethren donate far more hours to worthy community service organizations like Big Brothers, United Way, local community political associations, schools, churches, the arts, etc.

Who is to say that their chosen contributions aren't much more valuable and don't improve our quality of life far more than a measly 50 hours of pro bono work?

And who will explain to the past beneficiaries of our other endeavors when we have to say "no" to another charitable effort because we're stuck doing mandatory pro bono work?

Unlike the MCLE debacle, I don't think that pro bono service should be mandated at all, even if every breathing private/public lawyer, judge or professor is required to participate.

Don't we have a right to determine whether or not our own efforts should be focused on a particular charitable cause or not?

Don't we have a right to say that we don't agree that providing free legal service isn't as important as suing manufacturers of death traps like flammable baby pajamas?

Isn't it as important to stop Ford Motor Co. from producing exploding Pintos as it is to help the indigent with divorce proceedings?

And isn't it more important to protect the Constitution from an overzealous prosecution effort than to half-heartedly represent the poor with a Social Security appeal?

Frankly, I am offended by the idea that forcing me and my colleagues to donate free time to the indigent must be more important than the ways that we are now spending our time.

The whole idea assumes that a bunch of elitists are better suited than we are to determine how each of us shall spend 50 hours of our time each calendar year.

Yes, I'm very grateful to be able to reap the rewards and satisfaction of representing citizens before our courts.

I believe that I have a great obligation to return service to the people for the grant of my license. And I believe that by being available, by doing my job, often representing the underdog against the powerful and wealthy, I am already fulfilling that great obligation.

Attorney Timothy Lee Davis is a sole practitioner in San Diego.