LAWYERS SERVE December seems to be an appropriate time to address a little-known aspect of generosity in our state. Lawyers serve their communities. I have heard my share of lawyer jokes over the years. I never get “offended.” Some of them have more truth than joke in them. We are probably an easy target. We also get our share of public criticism. Some fair, some not so fair. However, to assess the legal profession in Georgia, one must get past the jokes, exaggerated stories, and prejudices. The truth is that lawyers are one of the most generous groups of people in America. Many of my colleagues donate countless hours each year by providing pro bono services to those in need, donating millions of dollars to non-partisan charities, and serving their communities as leaders and workers to make Georgia a better place to live.
That strange Latin word “pro bono” is a term that means “for the public good.” Lawyers throughout Georgia provide pro bono services for professional work undertaken voluntarily and without payment or at a reduced fee as a public service.
The State Bar of Georgia does not require its members to provide pro bono services. However, it is strongly recommended. I could write a 20-page column on the pro bono services that the Bar is involved in.
There are thousands of Georgians who cannot afford a lawyer. This is particularly true in most civil cases where a litigant does not have the right to a court appointed lawyer. Many people face divorce, landlord/tenant disputes, and other civil lawsuits on their own. Oftentimes, particularly in domestic relations cases, there is an attorney on the other side. While some judges will give pro se litigants (litigants without an attorney) a little leeway, the pro se litigant is always at a terrible disadvantage. Pro se litigants do not know the rules of evidence, possible available defenses, or the proper way to defend a case. Rarely have I seen a situation where a pro se litigant obtains a good result in a civil case.
Many of my friends who are civil attorneys donate their time to representing currently impoverished people for free or at a reduced rate in civil lawsuits. When they step up to help another person in need, the courtroom combat arena becomes equalized. This pro bono service results in fairer divorce hearings and more equitable judgments in other civil lawsuits. I salute my civil law colleagues for their service.
Pro bono service is also performed in criminal cases. While the United States Supreme Court has held that indigent defendants in criminal cases have a right to an attorney, many private criminal lawyers across the state provide free legal representation or representation at a significantly reduced fee.
Most of my peers, who practice criminal defense, are eager to step up when a pro bono opportunity presents itself or when a crisis hits the criminal justice system. For instance, not so long ago, two local criminal defense attorneys died within weeks of each other. Their clients were suddenly without attorneys. This could have significantly clogged the justice system, denied justice to all involved, and carried a terrible injustice to those who could not afford to hire another lawyer. But, within a couple of days, a group of criminal defense lawyers reached out, took the clients in, and assisted Lady Justice in her ongoing quest. The problem was solved within weeks.
The other benefit to pro bono work directly impacts the lawyer performing the service. I am a Christian. Christ taught us to be givers. Givers are much more likely to trust in God, remain humble, and develop the type of personal relationship with Him that makes our lives whole.
I am very proud that my profession has so many honorable and giving members in Georgia. Our pro bono work is one of the most important, but overlooked, cornerstones that hold that honor in place.