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Lawyers Give Free Legal Help to Needy

The Scales of Justice. Do poor people have the same access to justice? Pro Bono lawyers aim to keep the scales balanced.

The Scales of Justice. Do poor people have the same access to justice? Pro Bono lawyers aim to keep the scales balanced.

Legal advice can cost a lot. A person with little money does not have the same ability to get legal help as a richer person.

But in recent years, a growing number of law firms do pro bono work. They work for free. Lawyers who offer free legal help for their clients, the people they represent, are usually called pro bono lawyers.

VOA Los Angeles correspondent Elizabeth Lee wrote the following report .

Linda's Story

Identified only as Linda, a 65-year-old woman has been fighting for a year to gain guardianship of a child relative, her grandnephew Michael. But all her efforts failed. They were to no avail. Nothing worked.

”Because of the abuse that was occurring and the neglect, and I tried many times to get guardianship through the courts and to no avail.”

Then, Linda found an organization called Bet Tzedek. Bet Tzedek provides free legal help to those who cannot pay a lawyer. The staff connected Linda with pro bono lawyers from a large legal group who accepted her case.

After a year of fighting, Linda finally won guardianship of Michael. She says the shock of finally having Michael legally in her home left her numb -- feeling almost senseless.

“I was kind of numb for a while and until I said, my goodness it happened. It finally happened. Now he’s with me. Now I can go home and say to Michael, we have a home, Michael.”

Pro Bono Program Is Worldwide

David Lash is a lawyer with the law firm O’Melveny & Myers. He says a growing number of lawyers offer free help for needy clients. And he adds that many of them are from prestigious -- highly respected -- law firms.

“The last 10 years has seen a substantial growth in pro bono participation among lawyers.”

The firm O’Melveny & Myers handles anything from corporate law – company and business law - to intellectual property law. It also operates a strong pro bono program worldwide.

“The notion is burgeoning and growing. We’re doing a lot of pro bono work through our office in London and Brussels and lawyers in our Hong Kong and Singapore and Beijing offices are getting more and more involved in pro bono pursuits.”

Mr. Lash spends his work day talking to the community and organizations that offer free legal help to the needy. He also reviews and considers pro bono cases for his firm.

Migrants who enter the U.S. illegally may need legal representation which can be expensive. (Phoenix, Arizona May 2014)

Migrants who enter the U.S. illegally may need legal representation which can be expensive. (Phoenix, Arizona May 2014)

On this day, he starts by meeting with Bet Tzedek’s pro bono director, Diego Cartagena. The subject: how to offer free legal help to the children coming to the United States from Central America.

“We anticipate there will be hundreds of cases involving these children coming through the next few months.”

After this meeting, Mr. Lash gets on a group call, a conference call, with lawyers and activists in another state to advise about legal issues with immigrants. Then, he is off to speak to a new student lawyer about pro bono work.

Free Lawyers? What's The Catch?

But why work for free? Mr. Lash says there are many reasons law firms offer free legal help. And some of those reasons come from self-interest.

“In order to really maintain a competitive edge, major law firms really need to have vibrant pro bono programs. They’re invaluable ways to train young lawyers; they are great recruiting tools when we’re all interviewing at the top law schools.”

But Mr. Lash also says making justice available to people is what democracy is all about.

“It’s a magnificent feeling to use your skills and your profession to touch somebody’s life in a really profound way.”

Linda says that the law firm treated her and her family with respect. She says that even though she was not a paying client, the lawyers did not treat her as if she were a handout or a charity case.

“They made us feel special. They didn’t make us feel like we were basically a handout.”

Instead, Linda feels thanks and gratitude that goes beyond words.

I’m Anna Matteo.

This story was reported by VOA reporter Elizabeth Lee in Los Angeles. It was written for Learning English by Anna Matteo who also produced and narrated the report. It was edited by Jeri Watson.


Words in the News

pro bono(adj.) being, involving, or doing professional and especially legal work donated especially for the public good

prestigious(adj.) inspiring respect and admiration; having high status

gratitude (n.) the state of being grateful or thankful

handout (n.) something (such as food, clothing, or money) that is given to someone who is poor

charity (n.) the act of giving money, food, or other kinds of help to people who are poor, sick or needy; also : something (such as money or food) that is given to people who are poor, sick or needy

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