During my over three decades of working on the promotion and expansion of pro bono I have attended dozens of ceremonies, award programs, receptions, luncheons and more where pro bono lawyers are recognized for their volunteer legal services commitment. The programs I enjoy the most are those where the room is buzzing with electricity. A deep sense of pride pervades. The sense of spirit and heart is profound. I recently had one of those experiences as an attendee at the 2015 Massachusetts Access to Justice Fellows Program.
The ATJ Fellows Program is a project of the state ATJ and the Lawyers Clearinghouse. It affords senior lawyers and retired judges the opportunity to partner with non-profit organizations, legal services programs and the courts to provide essential legal assistance to underserved populations. The Program was launched in 2012 with seven lawyers who had already retired or who were transitioning into retirement. 20 fellows were welcomed into the program during the 2015 induction program.
Fellows devote ten to twenty hours per week on their projects, committing to work for one academic year. They meet as a group once a month to share their experiences, to meet with community leaders, and to discuss strategies for expanding the program.
The 2015-2016 Massachusetts Access to Justice Fellows will engage in a wide range of projects. One will be providing pro bono representation to non-profits on intellectual property issues. Another will be working on legislation to improve the lives of people with mental illness. A third will be addressing the unmet legal needs of veterans through the creation of a new legal clinic.
Thirty years ago, when I first started working in the pro bono field, the recently inducted Massachusetts Access to Justice Fellows were still building their careers. Yes, they might have been doing some pro bono work now and then but their time was spent primarily on serving their paying clients, growing their practices, and participating in local, state and national bar association activities. Today, the scope of the Fellows’ volunteer efforts and their commitment to spending some of their “retirement” to making a profound difference is truly impressive.
I was inspired as I listened to the program’s co-founders – Susan Finegan and Martha Koster – acknowledge last year’s Fellows and introduce those participating this year. There’s a simplicity to the initiative premised on the idea that if you encourage senior attorneys to apply their skills and experience in support of access to justice they will step up to help. This is one of those programs that could easily be replicated in communities across the country. My hope is that thirty years from now today’s young lawyers will be lining up to dedicate some of their retirement to pro bono.
For more information about the Massachusetts ATJ Fellows Program visit their website at www.lawyersclearinghouse.org/access-to-justice-fellows or contact its director, Mia Friedman, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Steven Scudder is Counsel to the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service.