President's Monthly Column - May 2018

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OUR PRO BONO COMMUNITY

By Thomas A. Brophy, president emeritus at Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, P.C., and president of the Philadelphia Bar Foundation.

In 2017, the Philadelphia Bar Association Pro Bono Task Force released a comprehensive report detailing the state of pro bono legal services in Philadelphia. Part of its analysis included lawyers in private practice at large, mid-size, and small firms, as well as solo practitioners. The report detailed that many of the large law firms in Philadelphia have pro bono programs in place for attorneys to easily promote involvement, and that robust pro bono practices can also be found at smaller firms. The large firms are also likely to have sizable pro bono projects in collaboration with Philadelphia legal services organizations. Facilitating pro bono work as a part of law firm culture is a distinctive and exceptional characteristic of the Philadelphia legal community.

For those without the means to pay for legal representation, many problems go unaddressed and needs go unmet. All signs point to the fact that this gap between need and solution has widened and continues to grow. These challenges will surely be exacerbated if dramatic economic shifts occur, if the United States government realigns with new priorities, or if a natural disaster occurs with far-reaching impact on the daily lives of Americans.

According to the Legal Services Corporation's 2017 report, The Justice Gap: Measuring the Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-income Americans, "Low-income Americans seek professional legal help for only 20% of the civil legal problems they face." The reasons people don’t actively look for help are that they either decide to handle it by themselves, they don't know where to find help or resources, or they are unsure if their issue is a "legal" problem.

Our legal community’s pro bono work is critical in advancing the mission of access to justice and we have the opportunity and obligation to communicate to the Philadelphia region that help is indeed available. There are tens of thousands of lawyers who provide pro bono service to the public and who dedicate their careers to public interest, and we can help amplify their voices.

Programs such as the Philadelphia Bar Association Young Lawyers Division’s Expungement Clinic mobilize many volunteer lawyers to provide free legal services to a large amount of people at once. This particular clinic assists individuals who have prior arrests and old misdemeanor convictions with getting them removed from the legal record and/or sealed from the general public.

Another collective initiative with impact is Take Action Philly (TAP) in which the Philadelphia Bar Association, with the support of the City of Philadelphia and several nonprofit legal aid organizations, work together to provide free legal assistance to individuals and families seeking U.S. citizenship by hosting a series of free screenings and clinics.

Although the Bar Foundation’s mission is to support free and low cost legal services through the funding of our nonprofit partner legal aid agencies, we also rely on generous pro bono legal support from our community. We are extremely grateful to have these pro bono legal services and the volunteer support of many from the legal community. Our dedicated Board of Trustees are a committed group of individuals who donate time, funding, and other resources to raise awareness about the Bar Foundation and to advance equal access to justice throughout the professional community.

As a multifaceted organization, the Bar Foundation relies on advice and support from legal counsel, provided gratis, for complex matters including:

  • Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, P.C. provides counsel for the Equal Justice Center bond transactions, development agreements and contracts.
  • Caesar Rivise, PC successfully filed for trademark on the Philadelphia Bar Foundation logo and provides intellectual property guidance.
  • Blank Rome LLP conducted an extensive analysis of national registration options for Bar Foundation fundraising, and Blank Rome Partner Linsey Bozzelli recently reviewed and edited our bylaws.
  • Montgomery, McCracken, Walker & Rhodes LLP is actively assisting with the creation and establishment of PBF Holdings, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Philadelphia Bar Foundation that will own the Equal Justice Center as a ground tenant. Donald Kramer has given invaluable advice on the creation of this complex entity.
  • Pepper Hamilton LLP filed a patent application for our innovative and unique Economic Benefits Calculator.

We are fortunate to have access to an incredible group of law firms and lawyers that are philanthropic-focused and believe in our shared mission. The Philadelphia legal community is unique and mobilized to leverage their talent not only for our benefit with services, but also for greater impact overall in legal service organizations and pro bono through their own firms.

The nomination period will soon open for the Pro Bono Award of the Philadelphia Bar Foundation. Given annually to a Philadelphia law firm or corporate legal department that performs outstanding volunteer efforts in providing legal services to those in need, this award recognizes collective commitment to the development and delivery of pro bono legal services in the region. We encourage you to consider candidates for this award.

The Philadelphia Bar Foundation is grateful to receive pro bono legal support and volunteer leadership from our legal community. We thank all of you for your service to us and to our legal aid nonprofit organization partners.