New Allies for Public Interest Law
Utilities, polluters, other corporate defrauders and wayward government agencies may not be pleased, but here is a bit of good news on the horizon for the people. The fraternity of lawyers known as the “organized bar” is finally beginning to consider seriously its obligations to support what has come to be known as public interest law activity. Last month the State Bar of Arizona, through its board of governors, approved unanimously a check off on its membership dues billing. Lawyers in that state can now assign $1 from their dues to the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest. Last spring the District of Columbia Bar increased its dues $2 per attorney to fund a Director of Public Interest Activities. Director Ann Macrory is busy trying to generate more pro bono work by Washing, ton, D.C. law firms and launching projects whereby lawyers can increase their assistance to the power-_ less and the needy.
The American Bar Association, taking note of these and other check offs in Chicago and Boston, is contemplating a comparable check off so that its over 200,000 members can contribute to the advancement of justice.
THESE EFFORTS, as yet small, represent the powerful moral claim the public interest law movement is making on the legal profession, which is presently enjoying a booming period of lucrativeness. The Council for Public Interest Law, in its recent report, “Balancing the Scales of justice,” documents the need for legal representation of unrepresented groups and interests which the marketplace for legal services fails to provide. These include bringing policy-oriented litigation for law reform on behalf of the poor, workers, consumers, minorities, and citizens who are unjustly harmed by pollution, government tax policy or other expressions of arbitrary institutional power.
There is, of course, nothing new about the recognition that achieving justice so often comes at a high price for the average citizen. Most Americans are shut out of their own legal system because they simply cannot afford the expense, the delays and the time off from work to pursue their grievances.
What is relatively new is the focus on rendering justice wholesale, instead of retail. The phrases “law reform,” “civic organizations,” “class actions,” “consumer cooperatives,” “corporate crime enforcement,” “political reform,” and “citizen participation” are the verbal touchstones of this latest awareness. It is better to repair the roof once than to catch all the leaks every time it rains.
The older legal aid programs concentrated on treating problems and abuses of the poor on a one by one basis. Their budgets could never more than scratch the surface. The retail approach cannot be neglected but it must be paralleled with wholesale preventive action and the assumption of more self-help power by unrepresented consumers, neighborhood groups and other aggrieved citizen groups.
As such efforts advance, they will produce a more equitable distribution of political and economic power in the society. Lawyers are among the first to sense this consequence. Therefore, it is important for both non-lawyers and lawyers to be alert to the organized bar’s willingness to let these-checkoff funds he sued for basic changes in the legal system. Pennies for band-aid treatment are certainly insufficient in an age when powerful corporate and government institutions regularly make a mockery of the law. One need not go beyond the widely reported institutional crime waves by officialdom and big business to show a warrant for deep concern.
WASHINGTON ATTORNEY Lloyd N. Cutler, who has represented his share of culpable mega-corporations, argues in the current issue of District Lawyer that every attorney should be obligated by ‘ the canons of ethics to “devote at least five percent of his professional time to pro bono work.” He believes that a new disciplinary rule should be invoked against lawyers “who fail without good cause to exert such efforts.”
Mr. Cutler is saying that lawyers are members of a profession, not a trade, and that they have a duty to serve the disadvantaged as “officers of the court.” If his interpretation of pro bono work in firms such as the one he heads includes defending people against corporate abuses as well as pursuing corporate law reform, Mr. Cutler is entitled to be called a pace-setter among his legal brethren.
Readers interested in obtaining information about public interest law activities can write to the Council for. Public Interest Law, 1250 Connecticut Ave. N.W., Wash., D.C. 20036, and to the District of Columbia Bar, 1426 H Street, N.W., Wash., D.C. 20005.