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When my great-grandparents, and maybe yours, landed at Ellis Island and were given a new “American” name, they started out at the bottom of society. With the help of their community – people to teach them English, to help them get jobs, and to integrate into society, they took the first incremental steps toward success. Four generations later, I am (and maybe you are) lucky enough to be possessed of the benefit of that long-ago hand up.
Lawyers hold themselves out as trusted advisors, passionate advocates, and public citizens with a special responsibility for the quality of justice in our society. We are trusted to represent clients in matters of great importance – for my clients, that means the one chance an injured person has to hold the responsible party accountable, to stand for David and take on Goliath in a court of law. That is the fight that we make our trade.
We live for that fight, but it is impossible to walk through this world without seeing countless others who need legal help and to know you are uniquely able to provide it, to fight for them too. I see immigrants – ghosts of my great-grandparents – seeking refuge on our shores who need to navigate a complex system bent on casting them away. It is a system that will succeed because they do not understand the rules. I see new members of our community bullied because they do not understand their rights. I see problems with the quality of justice in our society.
Working for these people benefits them, but it also benefits all of us. They will make our community a richer place by adding their strengths to our society – whether it is their unique perspective, special skills, or dogged determination and work ethic – but our legal system can be intimidating and stand in their way. As lawyers, we are able to lift some of the burden off their shoulders and help make space for them to thrive in a more just society. The legal work is pro bono publico – for the public good.
For me, working for the public good means taking on the representation of a mother and child seeking asylum in the United States. It means helping members of our community understand their legal rights and find access to resources that allow them to become part of an inclusive society where everyone plays by the same rules. It means helping them give their great-grandchildren the opportunity to extend a hand up to someone else a hundred years from now. It means planting a tree under whose shade I know I will never sit.
Pro bono is often shorthand for “free,” and it is legal work for which a lawyer expects no payment. But the phrase is much deeper than that. It is work that we do not only for the benefit of an individual, but also for the benefit of society as a whole.
We are personal injury lawyers and public citizens working for a more just society. We are grateful for our clients, without whom we would be unable to provide free legal work pro bono publico.