Like most attorneys I know, I went to law school so I could help people. For me, being a lawyer means more than just having a job, it means being part of a profession. Lawyers have obligations and responsibilities to the judiciary, government, and society. Lawyers are uniquely qualified and specially licensed to solve disputes. Just as the judicial branch is a vital component of a healthy democracy, lawyers are essential to ensuring that all people are afforded access to justice. This is our duty. It is our calling. Lawyers believe that equal justice under the law is a right, not a privilege. Further, we have access to the power and the resources to make equal justice under the law more than a lofty goal. We can make it a reality. Why do I think this? Because I work every day with lawyers in my state doing just that.
I am the executive director of an organization in Oregon called the Lawyers’ Campaign for Equal Justice (CEJ). Lawyers established the CEJ in 1991, with the mission of making equal access to justice a reality for all Oregonians. CEJ is the support organization for Oregon’s statewide legal aid programs. We operate an annual fundraising campaign; educate lawyers and the community about access to justice and how legal services are delivered; and work with lawyer volunteers and bar organizations to increase state and federal funding for legal aid. I just celebrated my first anniversary in this position. Before this, I worked for one of Oregon’s civil legal aid programs for nearly a decade, where I was a staff attorney and then managed its pro bono program. I have had the good fortune to have spent my entire legal career collaborating with the private bar, government attorneys, corporate counsel, bar associations, and the judiciary with the single-minded focus of increasing access to civil legal aid.
When people who are struggling to make ends meet lack resources for needed legal help, they are effectively shut out of the system. To the average person, our legal system is a maze. That’s why lawyers are trained to guide their clients through the system. Our country’s civil legal aid programs ensure fairness in the justice system. They provide essential services to low income and vulnerable people who are faced with legal emergencies. Civil legal aid services are comprehensive and include: legal representation; coordination of pro bono clinics; advice and document preparation; maintenance of websites with accessible legal information; the creation of brochures, court forms, and self-help materials to help people navigate the court system. Legal aid is a resource that helps stabilize families and prevent further slides into poverty.
Although legal aid provides critical services, nationwide these programs lack sufficient funding. We are not meeting the legal needs of our neighbors and community members. Legal aid organizations are forced to turn away two out of three eligible people who need their help. This is wrong. The ABA recommends two legal aid lawyers for every 10,000 low-income people to be minimally adequate. In Oregon, for example, the current ratio is two legal aid attorneys for every 17,000 low- income people. We need to nearly double our resources to be minimally adequate. Massachusetts Congressman Joe Kennedy stated that, “our laws reflect the promises we make, our justice system reflects the promises we keep.” There can be no justice if most people are denied access to legal representation and help.
This is where lawyers come in. We are problem solvers by nature and profession. All lawyers, no matter the area of expertise, can improve access to justice in their community. We can all make space for essential law related activities like supporting legal aid. Many ways to get involved are available. Here are some suggestions for things we can all do:
- Give money to your local legal aid program, or to a legal aid funding organization like the Campaign for Equal Justice. The best way to increase access is to create more legal aid staff attorney positions.
- Volunteer for a legal aid clinic or project. Or, volunteer to get involved with your legal aid program’s fundraising campaign.
- Speak up. Let state, federal and private funders know that access to justice is important.
- Learn how legal aid services are delivered in your community so that you can make appropriate referrals for low-income clients.
- Bank wisely. Where you bank matters. If you are in a state where interest on IOLTA accounts helps fund legal aid, move your IOLTA accounts to a bank that gives high interest on those accounts.
- Educate. Talk about the importance of access to justice. Let people know—civil legal aid is there for those who need help.
- Connect. Ask bar groups you are involved with to take action to support statewide or local legal aid programs.
In Oregon, we are working together as a legal community to improve the chances that a person who faces a legal challenge does not face that challenge alone. Last year, nearly 3,000 Oregon attorneys donated $1.25 million to legal aid. That represents 22% of licensed attorneys in the state. Together, we helped legal aid serve more than 22,000 people on the margins who had nowhere else to turn for legal help. I feel fortunate to have spent my career working for mission-driven nonprofits. Legal aid offices and organizations like the CEJ are particularly well poised to engage the legal community around shared values. I am proud of the work we are doing together in Oregon. Regardless of practice area or specialty, legal aid has room for all lawyers.
About the Author
Maya Crawford Peacock is the executive director of the Lawyers’ Campaign for Equal Justice, and formerly was statewide pro bono manager for the Legal Aid Society of Oregon.