“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. What affects one directly affects another indirectly.”
—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
1963, Letter from the Birmingham Jail
When I think of a core reason to engage in pro bono legal work, this excerpt from Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963, letter immediately comes to mind. While in jail for one of his protests, Dr. King wrote this response to an audience of white religious leaders from the south who issued statements of public concern and caution towards Dr. King and his supporters. In the letter, King shared numerous examples of injustices and appealed to the human emotion of the leaders with language, such as, “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham” and “Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
You may ask: “What does this have to do with legal pro bono?” I’m glad that you asked. There are numerous outreach opportunities for the “everybodies” of the world to help the indigent, lower income, less fortunate or poor— whichever identifier you choose for those in need, I am speaking of that population. Attorneys, however, possess talents to offer this population that extend beyond what the “everybodies” can. We are uniquely qualified to advocate and resolve problems that often have broad-reaching precedential value in the lives of people beyond serving meals in one soup kitchen or homeless shelter; we have the potential to reach the nation. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with serving a meal at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter along with the “everybodies.” But, don’t you want more? Most “everybodies” do not have the level of influence afforded attorneys because they are not educated and trained about the most powerful force in this land, the rule of law!
So, what opportunities are there? Maybe the marches in Ferguson, the “die-ins” in New York, the abhorrent attacks on law enforcement, or the senseless killing of innocent children and college students in their classrooms has left you believing there is nothing you could possibly do to change the status quo. Trust me. There is some social need perfectly suited for you to apply your legal knowledge and skills, and about which you can get excited. Perhaps, you could see yourself helping the homeless, but in another way like negotiating a housing lease, working on a legal hotline, or advocating for adequate mental health treatment and the benefits to cover it. Maybe issues within families resonate with you. If so, assist your local legal services provider by helping a domestic violence victim pursue a restraining order and safe housing, or handle a child support matter for a parent hanging on by a fraying financial thread. Perhaps, you’re more of a business law type and can take on consumer issues, such as identity theft and fraud schemes that are often targeted at the “least of these.” How about support for those who risk their lives to defend us? Drafting a will, power of attorney and living will for a soldier would relieve both the soldier and his/her family of unnecessary stress. And, if mentoring makes sense, but it’s not your bent, secure expungement of the juvenile record of an aging-out foster youth or other young person to enable him/her to overcome barriers to education, public benefits and employment, or help to stabilize the status and living arrangements for an immigrant child. For the latter, there will be more than enough opportunities to do so in the very near future.
The fact that you are reading this tells me that you likely think of yourself as a good person and became an attorney to use your skills to change the world. As Dr. King cautioned in his letter, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.” So, even if you think of yourself as quiet, certainly don’t be appallingly silent by doing nothing! There is something for you to do. As I recently heard someone say, “No one on earth can change the world, but we, as attorneys can change people’s worlds.”
As the nation celebrates what would have been the 86 birthday of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I encourage you to accept this truth that you can change people’s worlds by finding some legal pro bono work to perform. In so doing, you will add your unique stitch to this single garment of destiny that is still America. Such a legacy is surely worth getting excited about!
Dawn M. Du Verney, Esq. is an attorney with the U.S. Social Security Administration in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area. She is also a member of the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, the ABA Section of Litigation’s Children’s Rights Litigation Committee Working Group on the Right to Counsel for Children, and Co-chair of the Section of Litigation’s Criminal Litigation Committee. She is the former Executive Director of the State of New Jersey Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Commission.