“The No-Bill Profession” – Legal Aid and Pro Bono

You know what’s nice? Knowing that the practice of law is a profession that places as its benchmark the pursuit of justice and higher school of thought.  We all go into law school thinking that we’re going to change the world through our practice of the law, and some dolent professor with an Ivy League pedigree extols the virtues of the “Noble Savage” that the lawyer is supposed to be.  We are told, in every class, that the law exists to bring justice and that the role of an attorney is a counselor and advocate for the cause of the downtrodden client.  We are, in the words of the administrators and professors, the gatekeepers of justice, the first line of defense against tyranny, and the vindicators of the downtrodden.

And, of course, we then step out into the real world of practice and become made aware of the fact that all that esoteric bullshit and idealism doesn’t make the student loan payment of the rent.  Nobody’s ringing up their landlord and saying “Hey, I stopped a family of five from being evicted today!  They paid me in a big bag of pork rinds!  Will you accept pork rinds in lieu of rent now?”  If your landlord or utility company would ever stop laughing, what they’d choke out is “No, dipshit.”  Idealism doesn’t pay any of the bills.  “Good feels” doesn’t put food on the table.  Advocacy won’t buy avocado toast.

For that, you need money.  And to make money, you have to let go of the concept that you are anything more than a cutthroat mercenary of the legal world.  Because motherfuckers may need justice, but motherfuckers gotta pay to get it.  And yes, there are lawyers out there who provide representation to those people that need it without regard to their ability to pay, and they do some great goddamn work in doing so.  But, and here’s the thing:

They may not be there for much longer, and society has no viable safety net ready and raring to go for those folks.

Boozy, There Are Still Pro Bono Lawyers!

Yes, and I personally call them “dipshits of the first degree.”  Because they get their pay from the agency they work for, and that paycheck, unlike genital warts, isn’t guaranteed to be with them much longer.

This, of course, isn’t to dissuade any of those fine law students out there from considering work in the public service field.  Legal Aid organizations, for instance, offer many fine civil services to the downtrodden of society.  It is a purely beneficial exercise where attorneys take on the cases of those too unfortunate to pay their way in the civil court system, where representation isn’t assured and while the penalty may not be death it most certainly can be financial death.  But that program is funded through a Federal Agency, and those kids with stars in their eyes and shit between their ears that are thinking of signing up as a staff attorney at their local legal aid office need to realize their job security is as secure as Facebook’s data collection methods.

…How do they get funded?

The Legal Services Corporation is a federal agency that provides grant funding to the various legal aid organizations throughout the United States.  It was funded entirely for the purpose of making sure the downtrodden among us had legal representation in civil matters, where representation isn’t guaranteed by literally fucking any right we enshrined in the Constitution.  While Jimbo the Kiddy Diddling Clown has the right to representation fully funded on the public’s dime when he’s caught cocking things up again, Maria the legal immigrant with three jobs and four kids has nowhere to turn when her slumlord of a landlord tosses her ass out on the street.  She can’t afford a lawyer, and therefore Maria is fucked.  The Legal Services Corporation was supposed to take money from the federal government and pass it on through to the poor by providing grants for states to set up their own system of providing free or low-cost representation to the poor.

See?  There’s Funding For It!

Sure, I mean, right now there’s funding for it.  I’m sure that’ll stay in place, because the current administration is so fucking well known for their concern for the poor.

Don’t Be Political.

Fuck you. I’ll stop being political when they stop bringing politics into the day-to-day practice of law and the representation of people who actually need a goddamn lawyer.

Fact is, though, Trump went and made this shit political with the 2018 Budget proposals and his targeting of the Legal Services Corporation as an agency that needs to be entirely defunded and eliminated.  Hell, he tried to do that shit last year before folks stood up and said “Wait, what? You want to kill Mr. Rogers and Atticus Finch in one fell swoop?  Excuse me, sir, when did we stop living in reality and start living in an updated Bond Villain lair?”  And while the Legal Services Corporation, which is the single largest funder of legal aid organizations, survived the 2018 budget that was Trump’s “BUILD ME A WALL AT ANY COST” temper tantrum, it’s back on the table for 2019 to be completely defunded.  Because fuck Timmy’s need to have a place to live and Jenny’s need for help in securing a divorce from her abusive husband, or Carl’s need to obtain unemployment after his boss contested it on bullshit grounds, or…you know what? Just about every fucking “noble case” that’s out there.

That shit apparently just doesn’t matter anymore.

Dude, there are other lawyers out there to help.

Bullshit.  You know how I know that? I am one of the other lawyers out there to help.  I take on, at the very least, at least one pro bono case per year.  Sometimes more. I’m also registered with the county bar to provide “low bono” representation for people that don’t qualify for legal aid because they make too much, but not enough to pay the full rates.  Instead, I provide severely discounted legal representation to them if they come to me through the program.  And let me tell you, there aren’t a lot of us out there doing that shit because these cases can suck away every bit of your free time and generally have you doing a hell of a lot more than you would on any other case because clients who aren’t paying (or who aren’t paying full boat) still expect the best legal representation (which they’re entitled to, because you’re still a lawyer dipshit, no matter how poor the client may be) and isn’t driven by the same motivation (maximum benefit for minimum expenditure) that a paying client is driven by.

You take pro bono cases?  Mister “Fuck you, Pay me” has a soft spot?

Not exactly.

I get free shit for taking them.  Like, free CLE’s.  That’s like $600 in value per year to me, guys.  Plus, I get to pick and choose which cases I take, so if I take some simple thing that’s normally like a $500 flat fee, that means I’m actually making $100 in profit off the poor on this one.

…That’s not really the reason.

I have a reputation to uphold.

Plus, I was a legal aid guy for a while, and I maintain a bit of a a soft spot for those people.

So what are the solutions to the pending legal aid crisis?

First? Call your goddamn representatives and tell them that any budget which cuts funding for legal representation for the poor is a miscarriage of fucking justice and shouldn’t be tolerated.  Remind them that the end result of doing this is letting wrongdoers get away with their wrongs unpunished and unscathed and can result in a justice system that only operates for the wealthy while depriving the rest of us with the chance to experience the majesty of due process.

What are some solutions that…you know…will actually work?

Well, see above where I mentioned the free shit that comes along with “volunteering”?  More of that. Lawyers, by and large, have to make their nut, and we have to do it even more so when we work for other people.  That means that we don’t have a lot of free time to be altruistic in a legal manner. Even when we do, if you work for someone else you have to have their permission to be altruistic, because your fuck ups could land on their feet if you’re under their malpractice insurance.

So…sweeten the fucking pot.  Let lawyers trade CLE credits for pro bono work.

Or, in the alternative, sweeten the pot a little fucking more and change the way we collect lawyer’s fees in lawsuits.

But….that’s a Monday topic, right?

Wait, we’re ending there?

Yeah, we’re ending there.  Because this is already 1,500 words, and I have no easy solutions to the problem.  But you’re aware of it now, aren’t you? Yes, yes you are my little fucknuggets.  And being aware of the problem is, as G.I. Joe would say, half the battle.

Though they may not have called you “fucknuggets” when doing it.