Letter From The President of The Boston Bar Association

2008-06-01 00:00

To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:

The Boston Bar Association recently hosted the annual Healthy Kids Legal Network breakfast, an event honoring some pro bono attorneys and firms who have been active with the Boston Medical Center's Medical Legal Partnership for Children (MLPC). Founded in 1993, MLPC had its origins in the recognition that fulfilling the hospital's mission of providing top flight health care to its urban constituents often required addressing the social determinants of a patient's health.Unmet basic needs adversely affect health and well-being.

At the breakfast we heard a pediatrician describe situations where the solution to a health problem lay primarily in the legal system. Numerous cases of pediatric asthma in inner city areas, for example, are treated regularly with drugs when the real cure often lies in improving the living conditions of the young patients. Infants hospitalized because they are failing to thrive improve after weeks of inpatient care, only to begin again a downward spiral when they return to the transient homeless shelters in which their families live. Injuries and diseases stemming from contact with rodents can be cured but not prevented in a hospital or health center. It is easy and inspiring to see how lawyers can play a vital role in the health of poor people.

For a number of years the BBA has acted as a bridge between the MLPC and the Boston legal community, by helping to coordinate the provision of pro bono volunteers to the MLPC. The Healthy Kids Legal Network organizes firms and attorneys to provide pro bono assistance to poor pediatric patient families at Boston Medical Center, and other health centers throughout the Boston community. MLPC partners with 15 Boston law firms. Some firms have "adopted" a health center, where firm lawyers provide weekly legal clinics to provide legal assistance and counseling for low-income families in addition to being available to take on legal matters that arise from these urban medical practices. Other firms have "loaned" associates to these centers for full-time stints of up to 6 months. And many lawyers stand ready to receive referrals from these centers or the MLPC on a case-by-case basis.

Because of the scope of this exciting project I left this breakfast reinvigorated with pro bono spirit. However, I remembered a recent conversation I had had with the managing partner of a firm well-known for its pro bono undertakings. The firm had discovered that it had room on its pro bono docket to take on additional work. This was a surprising revelation, as the firm had long embraced the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge of the Pro Bono Institute in Washington to annually contribute 3-5 percent of the firm's total billable hours to pro bono work, and strongly encouraged its members to take on pro bono matters. But when they examined how much pro bono work they were in fact doing as a firm, they got a rude awakening. Over the years, perhaps because they were not approaching pro bono work in an organized way by utilizing pro bono coordinators or, as in some firms, full-time pro bono managers, and were instead leaving it to individual attorneys to bring pro bono cases to the firm, their pro bono statistics had fallen off surprisingly and significantly. Maybe this is true of other firms.

It goes without saying that the need for pro bono legal assistance hasn't fallen off over the years; just the opposite is true. Legal services providers will tell you that they turn away over one half of all people who call their projects and who are eligible for their services. But those are just the ones who call. Studies of unmet legal needs in Massachusetts estimate that the real figure is closer to 80 percent. And it will get worse unless funding for legal services is expanded.

The BBA has been second to none in providing pro bono opportunities to the legal community. The Healthy Kids Legal Network is but one example. The BBA Trust & Estates Pro Bono Project, the BBA Family Law Limited Representation Pro Bono Project, the Business Law Pro Bono Project, the Housing Court Lawyer for the Day Project, the BBA Boston Municipal Court ADR Program, the BBA Bankruptcy Reaffirmation Clinic, are but a few other examples of BBA pro bono projects. The BBA sponsors upwards of 20 public service projects in which pro bono opportunities for all lawyers, transactional or otherwise, abound. Please, reflect on and reassess whether you and your firm are doing as much pro bono work as you think you are doing or, more importantly, should be doing. My guess is that most of you will find you could, or should, be doing more. Renew your pro bono vows today.


Anthony M. Doniger