I have been a judge for almost twenty years and I love my work. I do not miss the private practice of law, with one exception. I do miss advocating on behalf of the low-income clients I represented as pro bono counsel. As a lawyer in a small law firm, I routinely accepted pro bono cases referred by the local pro bono program. I was frequently called upon to take challenging family law matters simply because the need was so great. I even served as a consultant to larger law firms whose partners and associates were not as well versed in the area of family law. To say that this work was rewarding is a significant understatement. I became a lawyer because I wanted to speak for those who could not speak for themselves. Each pro bono case I took reminded me of why I went to law school and each time I closed a pro bono case file I was proud to be a lawyer.
As judge, I continue to use my advocacy skills to advance pro bono in my legal community. Most notably, I write and speak about the importance of pro bono in our profession. And I encourage (some might say cajole) lawyers to participate in pro bono programs and projects. I always say please and thank you and in between, I let lawyers know that I consider pro bono service a hallmark of professionalism.
My colleagues on the bench also feel strongly that our system of justice is enhanced by the work performed by pro bono lawyers. The Civil Judges in my area sent out a written “Judicial Call to Action: Take One” which outlined the need and ways in which lawyers could help meet that ever increasing need in our community. This letter to local lawyers made one simple request, “please take at least one Volunteer Legal Services (VLS) case this year.” (Note the “please”).
Because it is so important to recognize the pro bono contributions of lawyers, the judges call every lawyer who closes a pro bono file through VLS to personally thank them for providing free legal services to the low-income citizens in our community. Lawyers who take VLS cases are also recognized at an annual event and the lawyer who has made the most significant contribution each year is awarded a coveted prize named in honor of a judge who championed pro bono both on and off the bench. (Note the “thank you”).
Judges, like lawyers, have a responsibility to engage in activities that promote justice and the rule of law. Typically, judges may participate in activities that impact the administration of the justice system. The work judges engage in which promotes access to justice helps improve the justice system overall and has the benefit of enhancing the perception of the public concerning our system of justice. Judicial leadership is vitally important to the success of achieving the goal of access to justice for all.
Participation in pro bono is a matter of professionalism and a matter of pride. I am proud to support pro bono activities locally, statewide and nationally.
Hon. Lora J. Livingston is the judge of the 261st District Court in Travis County, Texas (Austin). She has served on the ABA Commission on IOLTA, the ABA Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services, and the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants (SCLAID). She currently serves on the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service.