Message From The HBF Chair
For the last year, I have had the honor of serving as the Chair of the Houston Bar Foundation. The HBF is the charitable arm of the Houston Bar Association and is one of the largest supporter of programs providing pro bono legal services to those who would otherwise be left without recourse to an attorney. My time on the Board and as Chair has yielded a number of insights, a few of which I share below. Most are obvious, but perhaps still worth considering:
First, the gap between the need for legal services in our community and the ability of the existing infrastructure to meet those needs is widening rapidly.
The economic engine that is Houston invites many from other parts of our country and other parts of the world looking for a better life. As our population increases, the number of individuals with unmet legal needs increases as well.
Also, our society is becoming increasingly complex and legalistic. Those of us with college degrees and ready access to the Internet are easily able to keep pace with the forms, regulations and legal restrictions governing an increasingly expanding portion of our lives. Those without such a background – the uneducated, those who speak and read little English, the elderly – often find these legal requirements frightening and overwhelming. For such individuals, a little assistance or a knowledgeable helping hand can be life changing.
Second, it is imperative that the members of the Bar step up and support pro bono legal services – financially or with their time and talent or (ideally) both.
There is a reason why Superman spent a large portion of his time fighting evil masterminds. While his service at a canned food drive or a toys-for-tots program would most certainly have been appreciated, his skill set was uniquely suited to confronting super villains. In the same sense, while participation by those in the Bar in general civic and charity events is wonderful and should be encouraged, those who have the privilege of a law license are uniquely suited to confront the unmet legal needs of our community. While most anyone with energy or resources can help that in need with food, shelter or other day-to-day needs, only a licensed attorney can provide legal services.
While many donate resources to many programs that provided needed services in our community, the area of legal services is one that is often overlooked because the issue of unmet legal needs is often viewed as a peripheral issue. For us in the Bar, however, this need concerns the core of our profession and likely should be considered as primary needs when we look at where to direct our civic time, talent and treasure.
Third, supporting pro bono meaningfully does not necessarily mean taking on a specific pro bono client or a specific legal matter. While the acceptance of such a matter is likely at the top of the pro bono food chain, important pro bono needs can be met by simply showing up for one of the many legal clinics sponsored by the Houston Volunteer Lawyers and helping identify individuals who have needs and qualify for pro bono support; or spending a few hours on a Friday at the Veterans Clinic helping in the same manner. It can also mean specifically directing a portion of your charitable contributions to a pro bono support group, such as the Houston Bar Foundation, which will ensure that those funds are directed to organizations that work to meet the legal needs of the underprivileged in our area.
While a partner at a law firm who is also a parent of small children may have little time to devote to taking a pro bono case, they may be able to make a financial contribution to a group supporting those who can. While a retired, but still-licensed, attorney on a fixed income may be unable to contribute financially to these matters, they may have time to spend impacting the lives of the needy. All of us likely have some capacity to support pro bono legal services; all of us should consider whether that capacity should be exercised, and to what extent.
My final observation is philosophical. At one time I viewed pro bono merely as free legal advice for the needy. I now view such services as the compassionate side of the practice of law. Participation in pro bono work (with your time, your donations or both) focuses on the needs of others. In our often ego-focused, profit-driven, inwardly directed profession, such directs our energies outward in an act of compassion that benefits those performing the work greatly. In her recent book TWELVE STEPS TO A COMPASSIONATE LIFE, author Karen Armstrong noted that:
The World’s great traditions agree that compassion is natural to human beings, that It is the fulfillment of human nature and that in calling us to set ego aside in a consistently empathetic consideration of others, it can induce us to a dimension of existence that transcends our normal self-bounded state.”
My hope (for myself and all members of the Bar) is that we can recognize the great needs of our community and devote at least some of our time, talent and/or treasure to the compassionate side of the practice of law.
Houston Bar Foundation