Iwas fortunate to go to a law firm right out of law school that valued pro bono work. There wasn’talotofpreaching about it. I understood I could go down to the legal aid office and meet with clients, some- thing all of the lawyers I ad- mired in thefirm did regularly.
I did and I was hooked. At my firm,
I represented big corporations. While
that could be exciting, it was not as
rewarding as stopping an eviction that
was going to occur at 9 a.m. the next
morning. To this day, I believe volunteering for legal aid work connects
many lawyers to the reason we went to
law school in the first place: we want to
If anything, my commitment to legal
aid grows stronger, even though my role
has changed over time. I still like the idea
of representing real clients, especially
helping people who face some pretty awful injustices in their lives. In the nearly
35 years since I started volunteering at
Evergreen Legal Services, I’ve shifted
more of my time to being an advocate for
legal aid funding because it was obvious
that the resources are never adequate.
That’s why the recently released
2015 Washington Civil Legal Needs
Study Update (available at ocla.wa.gov)
is so depressing. We are only reaching
a fraction of the Washingtonians who
need our help, and the needs are growing exponentially.
We learn from the study that the aver-
age number of civil legal problems low-
income Washingtonians face in a year
has nearly tripled from 3. 3 in 2003 to 9. 3
today. We get a glimpse of how complex
and interrelated civil legal problems of-
ten are — and that they can carry long-
An eviction is rarely a clear-cut land-lord/tenant dispute. Some families can’t
make the rent because their child has an
insurmountable medical problem that
has taken them away from their job too
many days and cost them a paycheck.
Others are caught in abusive, violent
relationships and discover they’ve been
served an eviction notice from a landlord
who has seen the police on his property
too many times.
The 2015 Washington Civil Legal
Needs Study Update confirms that, despite our best efforts, we have a wide
and growing justice gap in our state.
In fact, more than three in four of low-income Washingtonians face significant
civil legal problems and get no help at all.
People often know what’s happening to
them is wrong. They may even know it’s
against the law. Still, they are powerless
because they don’t have anyone to advocate for them.
In essence, this study judges the justice system in Washington state and it
gives it an extremely low grade — very
near failure, in my opinion. There is also
an irony within this study: the system
is not a failure for those who are able to
get help. In fact, 17% of the low-income
Washingtonians who got help with their
legal problems said their problem was
People are seeing change in their
lives. We just don’t have enough of it.
So what can we do? I think it begins
with awareness. Let’s not fool ourselves
into thinking there’s equal justice for
all under the law — because there isn’t.
Injustice in our state takes many forms,
including racial discrimination and economic discrimination. The doors to the
courthouse are closed to the poor and
the powerless. We have to admit it and
Government at all levels — local,
state and national — has to respond.
Washington has just one state-funded
civil legal aid attorney for every 10,783
low-income residents. That’s less than
half the nationally recognized minimum service level of one civil legal
aid attorney for every 5,000 eligible
The public and private sectors need to
work together to generate much-needed
dollars. Financial support for legal aid
doesn’t pay just for attorneys; it keeps the
lights on and makes it possible for staff to
screen eligible clients, so more of us can
volunteer our time.
And yes, lawyers have to volunteer
more to help those cast adrift in our complex world. I personally know the satisfaction that comes when I’ve been able
to help someone to overcome seemingly
unsolvable problems. When you are able
to help a young mother stay in her home,
escape a violent spouse or get the medical attention her child so desperately
JOHN McKAY Reflects on His Pro Bono
Service, the Justice Gap, and the
Promise Built into the Constitution
The Erosion of Justice for All
was the U.S.
from 2001 until
eight other U.S.
Attorneys in 2007. A former White
House Fellow, McKay has served
as president of the Legal Services
Corporation in Washington, D.C., and
as litigation and managing partner at
Seattle law firms. He is a professor at
Seattle University School of Law.