Post by Iris Dooling, Research and Partnerships Fellow
Addressing the Justice Gap
There are many gaps between the haves and the have-nots in American society: the Achievement Gap between poor and wealthy students, the Wage Gap between men and women in the workplace, and the Justice Gap–just to name a few. Although not as frequently publicized, the Justice Gap refers to the growing number of low-income individuals who are too poor to afford legal services but not poor enough to qualify for legal aid. While defendants in criminal cases have the right to a lawyer, low-income people with significant civil legal issues -like divorce, foreclosure, bankruptcy, child custody battles, immigration status, and domestic abuse-are often left with no choice but to represent themselves in court. Even those individuals who are poor enough to qualify for legal aid do not have equal access as paying clients. According a 2009 report by the Legal Services Corporation, on average there is only one legal aid attorney available for every 6,415 low-income people as compared to one private attorney for every 429 people above the poverty line.
Many in the legal profession are working to address this gap by providing pro bono legal service to low-income individuals and organizations serving their needs. Although essential, this legal pro bono only meets a small fraction of the actual need. According to Cynthia Domingo-Foraste, an attorney at SafeHorizon, an agency that supports victims of domestic abuse, “or every [individual] that I am able to help, I must turn another away; such is the case with the overwhelming needs of our clients. Pro bono work can go a long way toward closing this gap. As lawyers, we have the tools to help those in need, but we have to commit to using them.”
Making a commitment to drive change
In order to draw national attention to the Justice Gap, in 2009, the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service established the first Pro Bono Week. National Pro Bono Week was intended to highlight the need for more pro bono, thank attorneys who provide pro bono legal service to low-income individuals, and to recruit more. Across the nation, law firms, bar associations, law schools, courts, and corporate councils celebrate National Pro Bono Week annually during the third week of October. Historically, events have included clinics where low-income individuals can come for free legal advice, training events to keep pro bono lawyers informed, recruitment events to encourage more legal professionals to join the effort, and media outreach to inform the public about the Justice Gap’s prevalence and consequences.
However, the Justice Gap is just one of many inequalities in our society that need to be addressed. Many social organizations serving needy populations struggle to achieve their missions because of lack of capacity. Just as dedicated members of the legal community use pro bono can help to alleviate the Justice Gap, the business community volunteers its time and talent pro bono to help social institutions serving needy populations and help close other gaps in our society. Taproot Foundation, the pioneer and critical architect in business pro bono, is helping to bridge that divide.
Leveraging Pro Bono Week
Inspired by the American Bar Association, Taproot Foundation joined the Pro Bono Week celebration in 2012 in order to highlight the outstanding pro bono service of business professionals who volunteer their professional expertise throughout the year and inspire more individuals to donate their time pro bono. In its inaugural year, Taproot hosted multiple ScopeAthon events – where nonprofits and other organizations came together to map out a pro bono project in one day – and they also recognized skilled professionals who donate their time pro bono to nonprofits in need.
This year, Taproot is leveraging Pro Bono Week to spread awareness and celebrate our pro bono heroes. Among the growing list of forerunners for the week are: Net Impact, which plans to host a pro bono assessment session at the 2013 Net Impact conference, NPower, planning to host pro bono tech workshops, CreateAthon which will host its signature 24-hour pro bono marketing marathon around the US and Canada, and Ashoka, who will lead a social media campaign. In addition, the Taproot Foundation will host a range of local and national activities, including a Business + Legal Pro Bono Training in partnership with Winston Strawn, LLP in five cities around the US, a Chicago Pro Bono Awards Gala and a national Pro Bono Hall of Fame Campaign. Announcement of the Pro Bono Hall of Fame Nominees and feature interviews coming soon.