Sunday, January 18, 2009

Why Legal Aid?

"Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope...." -Robert Kennedy

The path by which attorneys become Legal Aid lawyers is probably as unique as the individual him/herself. The caricature of the “Legal Aid” attorney within the profession and in the mindset of the public at large is as inaccurate as the thought that all birds are sparrows. Yes, there are those who strike the casual observer as liberal crusaders. And, yes, there are those who think they can save the world one client at a time. And, there are those recent grads who want to jump right into the mix without laboring in the research department of some big firm for five years and use Legal Aid as a way to get immediate client and courtroom experience, albeit at an economic sacrifice. But, there are also those, like me, who are fiscally conservative, socially to the right of center, Christian, and Republican.

I can hear the audible gasps of disbelief. Conservative Republicans infiltrating Legal Aid? Can it be? Is it even legal? The answer to these questions is yes, yes, and yes. Let me explain how and why this happened and just as importantly, why it should.

After nearly nineteen years of practicing law in the private sector, I left my partnership to work for Legal Aid. Most reasonable people would be (and were) mystified by such a decision. After working long hours year after year to build a practice, establishing a fairly loyal clientele, and positioning myself to make a decent living, why would I opt to walk away and join the ranks of those who represent those who cannot pay? While that is a reasonable question, I doubt the answer will sound reasonable to many or, perhaps, even to some. But, to my family it made and makes perfect sense. It is where my heart lies. That may sound trite to some, but is the truth nonetheless. Fortunately, it is also the heart of my wife.

For nineteen years, I peddled my “talents” to whoever could write a check. In the midst of all of the criminal trials, civil trials, custody hearings, real estate settlements, bankruptcy proceedings, and zoning meetings, I also managed to do a fair amount of pro bono work. These cases often gave me more pleasure and a greater sense of accomplishment than those for which clients paid. The clients were often embarrassed by their inability to pay and the need to lay bare their soles to show their lack to prove their eligibility for pro bono representation. For those used to being self-supportive, this was a humiliating and traumatic event. For those who relied on government programs for sustenance, it was one more reminder of their perceived failure and station in life. I saw it as a ministry.

The Bible teaches that, “The godly care about the rights of the poor; the wicked don’t care at all.” Proverbs 29:7. By giving of my time and talents to help those in need, I meet part of my obligation as a Christian. While I hope to never need welfare or to rely on the charity of others, I certainly hope that if I do need assistance someone will care enough to help. And, given the political nature of government programs, I pray that someone other than the government is ready, willing and able to step up. Not that the government should not be the primary monetary support for Legal Aid; it should. However, its record on providing adequate funds for Legal Aid since its inception in 1974 has been abysmal.

I also found that those who could not afford to pay me, those who had so little, were often the targets of liars, cheats, and charlatans of every size and shape. Those who had great wealth, those at least financially comfortable, and even those with little seemed quite willing to take advantage of the poor. Frankly, at times they outright stole from them. There seems to be a never ending supply of people who are willing to perpetrate creative forms of dishonesty on those who live hand to mouth.

And so, with a great sense of righteous indignation, I repeatedly agreed to accept the pro bono cases. Then, I took on more and more. Pro bono work was an expectation of the attorneys in my firm as we were all Christians and ran our firm on a Biblically based business model. But, even in that environment given the business demands of running a law firm, one or more of my office mates suggested, from time to time, that maybe I was doing more than my fair share. It was my Achilles heel. If it meant taking the files home and working on them after work, I did. Luckily, my wife’s concern for the poor easily matched mine, so there was no question about spending this extra time.

As part of work for a committee I was on, I was looking for ways to help the many litigants who found the need to represent themselves but did not qualify for Legal Aid. I began to look at pro bono and court websites for ideas. My wife also began to look at these sites to help with the task. We had discussed the possibility of moving to a Legal Aid position as a sort of segue to retirement but I was nowhere near retirement. But our timing is not always God’s timing. We found the job I wanted in the place we often talked about moving to. So, we made all the arrangements to leave my partnership, sold our house, found a new house and packed. We delivered our daughter to college for her freshman year on Tuesday and moved on Friday.

I have now been representing clients for Legal Aid for more than a year. I have helped people to keep their children out of foster care, to keep a roof over their head, and to escape abusive relationships. I have had the opportunity to work with students, senior citizens, and abuse shelters in educational and professional settings. While our resources do not allow us to help everyone, there is great joy in telling someone you can help them with the custody of their child, to save their home, or to make certain they get the benefits to which they are entitled without ever saying, “if you write me a check.”

My path to Legal Aid is paved with faith, personal beliefs, and family. Others got to the same destination in a multitude of other ways. The important thing is that they and I arrived. I am impressed by the talent and dedication of my colleagues, particularly those who have dedicated their careers to it. This is a noble task which, to many, means the difference between sleeping in a bed or in a car in the Wal-Mart parking lot. So, when people ask me “Why Legal Aid?” I ask “Why not?”


  1. Very well thought out. It's funny how much I didn't know was going on when you moved to Williamsburg. That reminds , I don't talk t you all nearly as much as I should.

  2. Thank you for posting your excellent observations about legal aid work. There are lots of paths to legal aid work and most of us are happy we found our way here.

    Jay Speer
    Virginia Poverty Law Center


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