Advancing Pro Bono through Access to Justice Commissions

By Steve Grumm, Director, ABA Resource Center for Access to Justice Initiatives.

This article was originally featured in Dialogue, Spring/Summer 2013, VOL. 16, NO. 4.

Access to Justice Commissions are spearheading creative, and replicable, initiatives to engage all segments of the private bar in pro bono work that rewards lawyers while narrowing the justice gap.

Pro bono is a critical component in the legal aid infrastructure. Under–resourced civil legal aid organizations, still reeling from significant drop–offs in federal funding and Interest on Lawyers Trust Account (IOLTA) revenues, rely on the private bar to supplement their work. Bob Glaves, executive director of the Chicago Bar Foundation, which funds the city’s legal aid providers, offers, “Pro bono is an integral part of a comprehensive strategy to make our nation’s promise of equal access to justice a reality. While it’s no panacea by itself, the private bar can marshal tremendous resources and is a major partner in trying to narrow the justice gap. We encourage all of our grantee legal aid organizations to develop strong relationships with pro bono contributors from throughout the legal community.” Indeed, more can always be done to encourage even more lawyers to perform pro bono work. But the sheer number and value of hours provided has been a huge boon to the legal aid community.

Meanwhile, Access to Justice Commissions (ATJCs) are state–based, blue–ribbon panels — composed of high–level leaders in the profession – which act on several fronts to improve the delivery of legal services to those on the socioeconomic margins.1 The ATJC concept is spreading rapidly. The first ATJC was founded in Washington State in 1994. Now, there are ATJCs in 27 states and in the District of Columbia, with 25 ATJCs having been founded since 2000.2 With 12 more states now using ABA–administered grant funding to explore the creation of an ATJC, there will likely be over 30 ATJCs within a year.3

ATJCs have had successes on numerous fronts in strengthening the legal–aid infrastructure and promoting equal justice. One of the foremost areas of success comes in the work of ATJCs to support pro bono. The reason for this is twofold. First, by dint of their membership and their close tethers to state high courts, ATJCs possess the clout to not only build awareness of ATJ issues but to facilitate concrete change. In Tennessee, for example, the high court has embraced the ATJC and its mission, and has appointed Justice Janice M. Holder as the Liaison to the ATJC. ATJC Chair George “Buck” T. Lewis says, “What has happened in Tennessee in the last five years demonstrates what is possible when the entire Supreme Court makes access to justice the number one priority.”

Second, ATJCs sit at the center of many segments of our profession — the bench, the private bar, the organized (i.e. state and local) bars, as well as the legal aid and law school communities. Thus ATJCs bring these actors together around the issue of effectively delivering services to poor people. ATJCs foster dialogue about what the judges see as priorities in the courthouse, what the private bar needs to get engaged in pro bono, and where the legal aid organizations can lend their deep expertise to boost pro bono efficiency. Once needs are identified and plans formulated, ATJCs act. ATJCs are truly unique entities in representing all these interests and channeling them toward the goal of equal access to justice.

To take closer look at  a few (replicable) examples of how ATJCs support pro bono, click here.

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