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Concept of ‘Free Legal Help’ Gains Ground in US


Lawyers who offer free legal help for their clients are commonly called "pro bono" lawyers. In recent years, there has been a growing number of law firms in the United States that do pro bono work. Among the trend-setters is the city of Los Angeles.

A 65-year-old woman, who identified herself only as Linda, says she has been fighting for a year to get guardianship of her grandnephew, Michael.

”Because of the abuse that was occurring and the neglect, and I tried many times to get guardianship through the courts and to no avail,” says Linda of her ordeal.

Then she found Bet Tzedek, an organization that provides free legal help to those who can’t afford a lawyer. Bet Tzedek’s staff connected Linda with pro bono lawyers from a large law firm, and they represented her. After a year of fighting, Linda won guardianship of Michael.

“I was kind of numb for a while and until I said, my goodness it happened. It finally happened. Now he’s with me. Now I can go home and say to Michael, we have a home, Michael,” said Linda.

A growing number of lawyers, many from prestigious law firms, offer free help for needy clients, says David Lash, of the law firm O’Melveny & Myers.

“The last 10 years has seen a substantial growth in pro bono participation among lawyers,” says Lash.

O’Melveny & Myers handles anything from corporate law to intellectual property law. It also has a robust pro bono program worldwide.

“The notion is burgeoning and growing. We’re doing a lot of pro bono work through our office in London and Brussels and lawyers in our Hong Kong and Singapore and Beijing offices are getting more and more involved in pro bono pursuits,” says Lash.

Lash spends his workday talking to the community and organizations that offer free legal help to the needy. He also reviews pro bono cases for his firm.

His outreach efforts included a meeting with Bet Tzedek’s pro bono director, Diego Cartagena. The topic: how to offer free legal help to the children coming to the United States from Central America.

“We anticipate there will be hundreds of cases involving these children coming through the next few months,” said Cartagena.

After this meeting, Lash got on a conference call with lawyers and advocates in another state to give advice about legal issues with immigrants. Then, he went off to speak to a new intern about pro bono work.

Lash says there are many reasons law firms offer free legal help.

“In order to really maintain a competitive edge, major law firms really need to have vibrant pro bono programs. They’re invaluable ways to train young lawyers; they are great recruiting tools when we’re all interviewing at the top law schools,” says Lash.

Lash says giving people access to justice is what democracy is all about.

“It’s a magnificent feeling to use your skills and your profession to touch somebody’s life in a really profound way,” says Lash.

Linda, who got custody of Michael thanks to a pro bono lawyer, agrees.

“They made us feel special. They didn’t make us feel like we were basically [recipients of] a handout.”

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