Making Equal Justice a Reality through Pro Bono Representation

Article originally appeared in Communique on 09/01/08

We in the United States view our society as organized around the rule of law and, in theory, our legal system provides justice readily and equally to all. Unfortunately, the reality often falls short of our ideals. While we see "equal justice under law" as a worthwhile goal, justice is often more accessible to some than others. For those unable to afford legal services, justice may be difficult to obtain at all.

It is not enough for us, as lawyers and guardians of the legal system, to believe in equal justice. We must commit ourselves every day to making it a reality by always keeping a pro bono matter on our desks. None of us has extra time to devote to pro bono work-we have to make the time. Our system of justice can work if, and only if, each lawyer shoulders his or her share of the load. This principle is embodied in our rules of professional conduct, which admonish us to provide legal services on a regular basis to those unable to pay. Nev. R. Prof. Conduct 6.1.

Each law firm, in turn, has a responsibility to support its lawyers' efforts by creating a culture of support for pro bono representation. Our firm is the result of a combination between two law firms-Lewis and Roca and Beckley Singleton that both have longstanding traditions of handling pro bono matters. Lewis and Roca demonstrated its commitment to pro bono service early on in cases such as Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), in which the firm represented Ernesto
Miranda in the landmark case giving rise to "Miranda Rights." Beckley Singleton has a similar legacy of pro bono representation. For example, in Clark County Social Service Department v. Newkirk, 106 Nev. 177 (1990), Beckley Singleton successfully challenged unfair and illegal county welfare regulations on behalf of a man denied benefits even though he was poor, homeless, and elderly.

It is, of course, one thing for law firms to celebrate the few attorneys whose efforts gain notoriety. It is another thing to value each lawyer's pro bono service regardless of its public significance. One of the ways in which our firm demonstrates its commitment to legal representation of the poor is by encouraging associates to take on pro bono matters. These matters are supervised in the same way as others within the firm, and pro bono service is considered in yearly associate evaluations. Accepting pro bono matters, both litigation and transactional, is seen as a way to provide hands-on experience to new lawyers and to team them up with partners for supervision and advice. The firm annually honors the attorneys who have performed extraordinary pro bono work, as well as those who have contributed at least 50 pro bono hours. We have been fortunate to have institutional clients who understand the importance of supporting access to justice for the poor.

While it will be far from easy to achieve, the American ideal of equal justice is neither unreasonable nor unattainable. The system can work if lawyers commit themselves on a regular basis to pro bono representation, and if each law firm supports its lawyers with resources and recognition. Only then can we truly say that as a profession, we do more than believe in equal justice as an ideal. We make sure it is a reality.

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