With many of you, I share the privilege of prac- ticing law. In its early days, along with medicine, the military, and the clergy, law was one of a narrow group
of professions defined by a common thread of service. I try to
keep that in mind when I also remember that as lawyers and legal professionals, most of us have been able to make a pretty fair
living doing this work — in no small part because of our knowledge and special access to the workings of the courts. So how do
we reconcile the notion of service and the privileges that allow
us to charge hundreds of dollars for a few hours of our thinking,
writing, and communicating?
I live in fear of having to hire a lawyer. I understand how legal
fees accrue and how they can mushroom beyond anyone’s control. One of my definitions of hell is getting sued… and winning.
You end up with severe financial losses for having been proven
right. Then I think about friends and family who are not lawyers
and who do not have our facility with what the law is and how
it works. How do they access the system to have their concerns
addressed without the cure being worse than the ailment? What
happens to the school teacher, the sales representative, or the
nurse when they need legal services? Our profession is not designed to serve the interests of the middle class, certainly not
when nearly half the country says that they could not pay an
unexpected $400 bill without selling something or borrowing.
Lawyers extend themselves in many ways to address this
problem. Thousands of hours are donated in pro bono service
and at neighborhood legal clinics. Most of us don’t track those
calls we get from friends or strangers seeking just enough guidance to figure out a direction that makes sense to solve the problem at hand. Our service in our community shows when we participate in charitable organizations and nonprofit boards, where
we give our time and contributions and ask others for theirs.
With funding that began with dollars raised through the
Foundation and other avenues, the WSBA has supported and
grown participation in the Moderate Means Program, which
connects prospective clients with lawyers willing to accept
their cases on a sliding fee scale. Often those are lawyers who
are seeking to grow their own practices or work in underserved
communities. Law students are the starting point for that program, and Washington's three law schools have student volunteers who engage in the initial client screening, developing
client interviewing skills at the same time.
Funds raised by the Foundation have also helped support the
foreclosure clinics that popped up to meet an urgent need during
the crucible of the Great Recession. The first responders’ will clinics began after 9/11, so that when we ask people to run into the
fire they have the comfort of knowing they have planned for their
families. One of my sons is an EMT now in training as a firefighter.
This resonated with me, and it became personal in a different way.
People turn to the courts because they promise a forum for
the peaceful resolution of disputes. When folks don’t believe
MAKING THE LEGAL SYSTEM
MORE ACCESSIBLE FOR ALL
they are able to access the courts, they are left to other alternatives that can turn ugly, or they give up. Neither of those answers
is right. It is not right that we should have a system that makes
hardworking individuals give up on their legal rights because
they cannot afford help to assert them. If we want to preserve
the system that we have — which is not all that bad a system for
solving disputes — we have to make it accessible.
by Tom Lerner
Why I Will Continue to Support the Washington State Bar Foundation
I rely in part on the WSBA to help make the legal system
more accessible; because that helps make our society fairer
and more peaceful, I am willing to donate to improve access to
justice. There are lots of payments that we can complain about,
and few find joy in paying any. But donate for justice? Sign me
up. Wedge my lawyer dollars to prop open the courthouse door
Lawyers work 2,000 hours in a typical year. Perhaps you bill
half that time or three-quarters of that time or more. Consider
donating what you ask others to pay you for just one of your
billable hours. For those of you billing just 1,000 hours a year,
that is one-tenth of a percent of your time. Can you spare one-tenth of a percent of your time to contribute to access to justice
so that the middle-class families in your community can seek
legal help when they need to?
For those of you who are weighing that against the other
ways you want to spend or give your money, I want to come
back to the notion that what we do is a privilege grounded in
a history of service, and it only continues to work as long as
everyone in our society believes that they have a chance at
getting justice. The value of an hour of your billable time is a
tiny amount to contribute so that the courthouse door is a little
more open than it is shut.
I am ending my term as a trustee of the Foundation, as there
is virtue in fresh eyes and hearts coming into that role. But I am
not ending my support of the Foundation, nor will I stop asking
my partners and my colleagues to add their contributions to
my own. When we all help, we pay so little and gain so much,
and it becomes another way to remember that what we do —
what we are supposed to do — is serve. NWL
TOM LERNER is a shareholder with Stokes Lawrence, P.S. He can be reached at tom.lerner@
stokeslaw.com or 206-892-2147.