ACCESS TO JUSTICE
HEATHER CARSON PERKINS AND CANDACE WHITAKER, J.
Why would a big law firm incorporate pro bono legal services into its culture and practice? Foundationally, it is the right thing to do and makes our lawyers and our firm better. Moreover, large law firms across the country are united in believing that pro bono is fundamental to the practice of law. This article explores our perspective as part of Colorado’s vibrant pro bono community.
The Widening Justice Gap
The access to justice gap is the difference between the civil legal needs of eligible low-income Americans and the capacity of legal aid organizations and other providers to meet those needs. Unfortunately, it is an ever-widening gap. In 2017, the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) reported that “[l]ow-income Americans receive inadequate or no professional help for 86% of the civil legal problems they face in a given y e a r .” 1 Almost one-half of that need, or 48%, is related to children and child custody issues.2
In Colorado alone, 880,000 Coloradans meet income eligibility guidelines for Colorado Legal Services (CLS), the state’s primary legal aid-provider. Yet CLS has just 47 lawyers in 14 offices throughout the state. Low-income Coloradans need legal help to address issues critical to their well-being, including family stability, safe and affordable housing, domestic violence, consumer protection, and access to government benefits. More people need help every day, including the newly poor, elderly retirees, veterans, the disabled, and other vulnerable populations.
Incorporating Pro Bono into Law Firm Culture
Lawyers have a distinct responsibility to ensure quality access to justice for underserved and vulnerable populations. In taking the Oath of Admission, each Colorado attorney swears to “use my knowledge of the law for the betterment of society and the improvement of the legal system; I will never reject, from any consideration personal to myself, the cause of the defenseless or oppressed.”4 Additionally, Colorado ethical rules codify lawyers’ responsibility to provide pro bono legal services to the poor. Our firm's leadership embraces support of our lawyers in doing so.
Low-income Coloradans need legal help to address issues critical to their well-being, including family stability, safe and affordable housing, domestic violence, consumer protection, and access to government benefits.
In addition, many law firms recognize that pro bono not only benefits the community, but also makes their attorneys and their firms better. They invest in pro bono programs because it helps their attorneys thrive, develop important legal skills, and get more satisfaction from their careers. Pro bono also promotes altruism within the firm, strengthens culture, and connects attorneys across offices. The stories below highlight just a few of the reasons why pro bono is a core value of our firm.
Pro Bono Story 1: Remembering the Forgotten
During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Air Force used Fairchild UC-123 Provider (C-123) aircraft to disseminate Agent Orange (AO). The Air Force Reserve then began regularly assigning Air Force reservists to serve on C-123 aircraft (C-123 Reservists) stateside. The Air Force, however, failed to decontaminate the C-123 aircraft or provide protective gear. As a result, many C-123 Reservists contracted AO-related illnesses, including terminal cancers. Because the C-123 Reservists were not exposed to AO while serving on Vietnamese soil, the Department of Veterans’ Afairs (VA) denied benefits for their AO-related illnesses.
One of our clients was such a Reservist. The VA denied his application for...