The University of St. Thomas School of Law mission indicates “social justice” as a fundamental goal in educating lawyers. Throughout law school we’re told that being a lawyer is a gateway profession and that as such, there is an obligation to provide services to those who could not otherwise afford it. There is no doubt that retaining a lawyer who knows the rules of the game can be great advantage, especially in the litigation context; but what does striving for social justice require from each practitioner?
I’d offer that furthering social justice requires more than providing 50 hours of volunteer service every three years as recommended by the ABA or recognized by the North Star Lawyers program here in Minnesota. That said, I’m not suggesting more than 50 hours achieves the mission-stated goal of furthering social justice. Living the UST mission seems to focus more on the depth of those pro bono hours than the quantity.
Representation in a pro bono setting can provide a different scenario than what a lawyer is typically accustomed to; unfortunately, that can lead to a different type of representation. Yes, on occasion a pro bono client will take advantage of the lack of cost associated with representation and will make unrealistic demands on an attorney's availability, including multiple phone calls and emails each day, etc. However, that is more an issue of setting client expectations, and that’s on the lawyer.
Pro bono clients are not “non-paying” clients. They aren’t looking for the minimum possible representation to get by; the concepts of social justice require an attorney’s complete focus and intensity. Putting in the hours isn’t enough. Showing up isn’t enough. To that end, I’d argue that getting the desired result isn’t enough. Pro bono clients deserve to feel good about the process, as well as the result, and that means immersing yourself in their matter as if it was your highest paying client, and making sure the pro bono client feels like their case is the most important case an attorney has.
Soap-box speech aside, this entry comes from my own experience (and subsequently my own failure) in balancing the need to further social justice through pro bono service, with the need to keep the lights in the office on. Which leads to my final thought on social justice, which is that it’s an evolving practice - one that changes and grows as we grow. I am better now at furthering the mission than I was three years ago. I certainly hope to better in three years than I am now. With that change in ability comes a change in responsibility, and I’m thankful for the UST community to be my accountability partner as we move forward.
Kellen T. Fish is owner of KTF Law Firm, PLLC, where he practices family law and offers estate planning, probate and trust administration, and small business consulting.