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Remarks of LSC Board Chairman John J. Levi at the Pro Bono Awards Reception (Pittsburgh, 10/21/13)

Prepared Remarks by
LSC Board Chairman John G. Levi
LSC Pro Bono Awards Reception
October 21, 2013

Pittsburgh, PA

 

Good afternoon.

It is my privilege on behalf of the Board of Directors of the Legal Services Corporation to welcome you all to this reception.

Today it is our pleasure to recognize five outstanding lawyers, a distinguished law firm, and two prominent legal organizations for their significant pro bono contributions to the eight LSC grantees in Pennsylvania.

And through the wonders of modern technology, we will hear from two prominent Pennsylvanians via live stream-- Representative Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania’s Second District, and our K&L Gates host, former Pennsylvania governor and U. S.  Attorney General Dick Thornburgh.

I am sure both of them would rather be here in person—and, I might add, they are missing a whale of a party.
 
And in the flesh, we will also be privileged to hear from a third prominent Pennsylvanian who has not missed the party—in fact he has attended every event-- Pennsylvania Bar Association President  Forest Myers.

Thank you to the Allegheny County Bar Foundation for sponsoring this event, and the staff of K&L Gates for helping to organize it.

I want to take a moment to recognize LSC’s outstanding president Jim Sandman and  members of LSC’s  senior staff and introduce our Board, who are all with us tonight:

Martha Minow, our Vice Chair and Dean of the Harvard Law School.

Sharon Browne of Sacramento, a former principal attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation and member of the Foundation’s senior management.

Robert Grey, a Hunton & Williams partner in Richmond and a former ABA president.

Charles Keckler, of Arlington, Virginia, Adjunct Professor of Law at Washington and Lee School of Law.

Harry Korrell, a  partner at Davis Wright Tremaine in Seattle.

Victor Maddox, of Louisville’s Fultz Maddox Hovious & Dickens, and former counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Laurie Mikva of Evanston, Illinois, Assistant Clinical Professor at Northwestern Law School Bluhm Legal Clinic, who served for many years  as a civil legal aid attorney.

Father Joseph Pius Pietrzyk, a Dominican friar who is engaged in doctoral studies in Rome.  Out of law school, Father Pius worked for three years at Sidley Austin in Chicago, in the Corporate and Securities practice.

Julie Reiskin, the Executive Director of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, a statewide disability-rights organization run by and for people with disabilities.
 
Gloria Valencia-Weber, a professor at the University of New Mexico School of Law and a leading expert on Native American law.

It is appropriate  that we are gathered here this afternoon, at the beginning of  the ABA’s  National Pro Bono Celebration week, to recognize exemplary pro bono service in Pennsylvania.
 
This reception comes at the end of a stimulating day of discussion highlighted by two terrific panels exploring what the judiciary is doing to help provide greater access to justice in this region and learning about new private partnerships LSC grantees are using to promote pro bono activity across the country.

At our national quarterly board meetings, we ask each of the local LSC programs to nominate for special recognition those individuals or law firms and organizations that have been especially supportive of pro bono.
 
Since it is the Board’s tradition to travel to every state before returning to one where we have already held a meeting, and since we hold only three such meetings a year, we will not be back in Pennsylvania very soon, and that makes the awards we are giving this afternoon very special indeed.

These awards reflect LSC’s commitment to pro bono service, evidenced most recently by the distinguished national Pro Bono Task Force we empanelled and the continuing work of the task force’s implementation committee.

Last year we released its far-reaching recommendations, which include a joint effort with the ABA to identify rules changes that can help states promote pro bono; a pro bono tool kit that offers strategies for the development of first-rate, sustainable programs; an examination of LSC’s own private attorney involvement rule; and the creation of a pro bono innovation fund.  

The urgency of the task force’s recommendations was illustrated just a few weeks ago by the Pro Bono Institute’s recently released report on its annual Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge, in which major law firms report on their commitment to provide pro bono services.
 
For the first time since the challenge was implemented in 1995, the report did not include data on law firms’ pro bono hours devoted to low-income people and organizations that serve them and the percentage such service constitutes of  the firms’ total pro bono commitment.

And that is because so few of the 133 firms  in this year’s challenge reported specific and reliable data on this crucial issue, representing a marked decline.  
The fact that law firms signing on to the pro bono challenge, did not track  hours devoted to pro-bono work for the poor illustrates the magnitude of the challenge we face in promoting more pro bono efforts to close the Justice Gap-- the disparity between the legal needs of low-income people and the capacity of our civil justice system to meet those needs.

If we are to have a successful system of volunteerism at the center of our support for the legal needs of the low-income population, then the legal community, especially the large firms, need to do a better job of paying attention to, valuing,  promoting and monitoring pro bono service to our country’s most vulnerable citizens and their legal needs.

As we work hard to promote pro bono, however, we must also acknowledge that pro bono is most effective when supported by adequately funded and structured legal aid programs that screen cases and support volunteer lawyers with training, materials and the expertise of staff attorneys.

Pro bono lawyers working in conjunction with lawyers at LSC-funded programs have helped tens of thousands of people across the country and play an essential role in LSC's mission.

For example, here in Allegheny County, pro bono attorneys working with Neighborhood Legal Services Association last year handled nearly 1,100 cases of domestic violence, negotiating settlements and litigating 41 cases through extended representation.

Volunteer attorneys participating in the program range from sole practitioners, law firm associates and partners, and corporate attorneys.

This kind of vital work, which we recognize and celebrate today,  is essential to our faith in the fairness of our justice system and to honoring a core American value—equal access to justice.

And we cannot gather in Pennsylvania without taking note of the fact that in just a few weeks our country will mark the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in which he paid tribute to our fallen soldiers and really spoke to all of us who follow in their shoes to make sure that we keep faith with the country’s founding values.

At our July Board meeting in Denver, we were privileged to hear from Colorado’s U.S. Attorney John Walsh, who reminded us that:
“798 years ago, the Magna Carta established that no man, even a king – or in our constitutional system, a President – is or should be above the law.  In a sense, the enterprise that all of you are engaged in is achieving the equal but converse principle – that just as no person should be above the law, no person should be below it.”

LSC has since its founding been an institutional embodiment of this ideal, and so is the private bar’s commitment to pro bono service—that no one should be below the law.

Tonight we recognize the work of some of the heroes of this cause and urge others in our profession to follow their inspiring examples.