Remarks by Chair John G. Levi: Pro Bono Awards Reception San Francisco

BoD Meeting October 2015
October 5, 2015

As most of you know by now, I am John Levi, the 10th chair of the Board of Directors of the Legal Services Corporation, and it is my pleasure on behalf of the Board to welcome you all to this reception.

Tonight we recognize five California attorneys, three law firms, and two innovative collaborative projects for their important pro bono contributions to LSC’s grantees across the entire state of California.

I want to thank Kirkland & Ellis for hosting us this evening in this wonderful facility, and we are looking forward to being welcomed by partner Jeremy Veit.

We will also be privileged to hear from California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu and California State Bar Association President Craig Holden.

I also want to take a moment to recognize LSC’s outstanding president Jim Sandman, and we are so very grateful that he joined us after his distinguished career during which he was managing partner of the Arnold & Porter firm and president of the DC Bar.

Our Board members are with us tonight, and they have all done a terrific job.

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

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

Charles Keckler, Presidential Scholar at George Mason University.

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

Victor Maddox, of Louisville’s Fultz Maddox Dickens.

Laurie Mikva of Chicago, a former civil legal aid lawyer who is now Assistant Clinical Professor at Northwestern Law School Bluhm Legal Clinic.

Father Joseph Pius Pietrzyk, a Dominican friar engaged in doctoral studies in Rome, who in a former life worked for three years as Corporate and Securities associate at my firm Sidley Austin in Chicago.

Julie Reiskin, the Executive Director of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition.

Gloria Valencia-Weber, a professor at the University of New Mexico School of Law.

We have been so fortunate to receive the additional support of non-director members of our Board committees, three of whom are here tonight: Allan Tanenbaum of Atlanta, who practices with Taylor English’s Corporate and Business group; Herb Garten, of Baltimore’s Fedder and Garten and a former LSC Board member; and Tom Smegal, LSC’s longest-serving Board member and a practitioner here in San Francisco.

It is the Board’s tradition to travel to every state before returning to one where we have already held a meeting, although in the case of California — because of its size and number of grantees — we break it into two.  Since we hold only three such meetings a year, the LSC Board will not likely be back in Northern California any time soon, and that makes the awards we are giving this evening very special indeed.

The awards reflect LSC’s commitment to pro bono service, evidenced by LSC’s Pro Bono Task Force and, most recently, by our Pro Bono Innovation Fund Grants program, first funded by Congress in 2014 for $2.5 million and increased to $4 million this year.

A few weeks ago, LSC awarded grants to 15 legal aid organizations across the country to support projects that develop replicable innovations in pro bono services for low-income clients.

One of the recipients is from California — Bay Area Legal Aid, which plans to use the grant to restructure its pro bono case placement process to require less staff intervention.

Using technology that streamlines and automates case placement and processing, the project will also help place specialized pro bono opportunities with law firms that will help benefit a larger number of low-income people. 

We look forward to hearing about how this project progresses and how others can learn from this effort.

As you and we work hard and in new ways like this to promote pro bono, however, we together must acknowledge and we have come to fully appreciate that pro bono is most effective when supported by adequately funded and properly 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 to help ensure equal access to justice.

That mission reflects a fundamental responsibility of our profession, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recently observed:

“Lawyers have a license to practice law, a monopoly on certain services.  But for that privilege and status, lawyers have an obligation to provide legal services to those without the wherewithal to pay, to respond to needs outside themselves, to help repair tears in their communities.”

In my opinion, the country’s confidence in the fairness of our justice system to work on behalf of all Americans is in the balance. If lawyers do not sound the alarm when the funding is woefully inadequate, who will? When courts are packed with pro ses and lawyers don’t speak up, who will? 

When a large enough group of folks feel that the justice system is not accessible for them, what will be their tipping point?

So we American lawyers, all of us in some way officers of the court, hold a special responsibility in my view to our fellow countrymen to make sure that our justice system continues to be one that adheres to our founding value of equal justice under law. 

Tonight, we recognize and honor lawyers who are doing just that through their own remarkable pro bono service here in California.