To say that current times are unsettling would be regarded by most as an understatement. One only has to look at the headlines, watch the nightly news or read one’s favorite blog to appreciate that the world is being confronted by a number of harrowing challenges. For many individuals here in the Houston area, however, the broad problems of the world take, by necessity, a backseat to more immediate issues: job insecurity, housing challenges, domestic violence, food uncertainty, to name only a few. Often overlooked is the need for legal services cutting across all of these issues.
Those of us with Law degrees might be forgiven for failing to regularly consider just how complex modern life is. Those without J.D.’s – and perhaps with only rudimentary education, for whom English is a second language, or who otherwise have challenges in their lives – are forced to regularly deal with that complexity, however, whether it is in obtaining assistance, securing veterans’ benefits, managing end of life concerns, or addressing domestic relations issues. And, they most often do it alone. According to the Texas Access to Justice Commission, only 20-25 percent of the civil legal needs of low-income and poor Texans are being met. In fact, Texas ranks 50th in access to legal aid attorneys with only one legal aid attorney for every 11,000 poor Texans.
The Houston Bar Foundation was established in 1982 as a 501(3)(c) non-profit to act as the charitable arm of the Houston Bar Association (HBA). The Foundation’s mission is to help provide legal representation to the indigent, promote community understanding of our legal system, and to foster the administration of justice. In short, to help make Houston a city where “justice for all” is a reality, and not just a slogan.
Guided by a Board of Directors comprised of representatives of leading firms and corporations, the Foundation manages an endowment that currently stands at over $10.5million. This November, the annual Harvest Celebration for Pro Bono, co-sponsored by the Foundation, the HBA and the Houston Bar Association Auxiliary, raised a record $732,720, and we thank our many underwriters and contributors. Proceeds from the Harvest Celebration, contributions by the HBA, earnings from the endowment, and individual contributions through the Fellows Program, have allowed the Foundation to award more than $13.8million in grants since its formation. The largest of these grants each year goes to the Houston Volunteer Lawyers $820,000 in 2015 alone where the Foundation is the largest single provider of unrestricted funds. Those funds, and the unselfish contribution of time by our fellow lawyers, have allowed the Houston Volunteer lawyers to:
provide one-on-one legal advice to over 5,800 applicants at no charge
place almost 900 matters with pro bono lawyers for long-term representation
hold twice-monthly legal clinics on Saturdays
provide assistance to self-represented litigants in simple divorces
staff a weekly legal advice clinic for veterans at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Clinic as well as hold free legal clinics approximately twice a month in outlying counties (over 13,000 veterans served since 2008)
provide low-income patients with critical legal assistance through the Texas Children’s Medical-Legal Partnership, and
work with firms such as Norton Rose Fulbright and Gray Reed McGraw and corporations such as Exxon Mobil Corporation to provide legal advice clinics and protective orders for domestic violence victims at the Houston Area Women’s Center.
Support by the Foundation is essential for these efforts to continue – and expand — in the future. This year, the Foundation is updating its Fellows Program through which individual attorneys establish a long-term program of giving in support of the Foundation and pro bono. Watch for more information early in 2016.
The Annual Foundation Luncheon is scheduled for February 10, 2016 at the Hilton-Americas Hotel (a new venue this year). In addition to honoring firms, corporations and individuals that have made significant pro bono contributions during 2015, we will have the opportunity to hear from Jack Balagia, (my boss) as he enters his final year before retirement as Vice President and General Counsel of Exxon Mobil Corporation. It should be a fine event for all.
I’ll close by saying it has been a true pleasure and privilege to serve as Chair of the Foundation this year. As lawyers, we should all be proud of the Foundation’s mission and its accomplishments. I am grateful that I got to play a small part in its making that happen. See you on February 10th.
Houston Bar Foundation