Is Pro Bono A Cure, Or Just A Bandaid?

Baker Donelson

Law without justice is a wound without a cure.

 ~ William Scott Downey

We live in a very superficial culture, especially when it comes taking care of things that are hard, or expensive. Or things that can't be fixed overnight. We like instant gratification. We like to congratulate ourselves for a job well done and walk away.

Our nation's veterans are a good example of what I mean. While on the surface our culture and our national politics are all about how we revere and support our troops, the ugly truth is just underneath the surface. We may say "thank you for your service" with tears in our eyes, yet thousands of veterans across the land are without medical services and other vital benefits, and many are homeless, often due to "bad paper" discharges for things that stemmed from the trauma of their service.

Lately I have heard it suggested in a number of contexts that the celebrated work of lawyers on important civil rights cases like Brown v. Board of Education and Gideon v. Wainwright did not really accomplish nearly as much as it seemed on the surface. Indeed, some posit that those civil rights "victories" in some ways did as much harm as good by placing the window dressing of rights and progress on terrible wrongs, which then continued on with a new air of legitimacy. A nice looking bandage to cover a still festering wound. It's hard to disagree with these sentiments, to a point. In the South, at least, our schools are as segregated and unequal as ever, and the much vaunted right to counsel doesn't offer much protection to those who must be represented by public defenders who are so overworked that they have to resort to "meet and plead" justice, or by lawyers who are sufficiently incompetent that accepting appointed cases for peanuts is the only way they can scrape up a living. The existence of the laws and court decisions that supposedly guarantee these protections allows our legislators and our system of justice, and the general public, to look the other way.

There's no question that what initially looked like major victories have been ground down over the years. And sometimes it's hard not to feel similarly discouraged about all kinds of pro bono efforts, large and small - like you're applying a bandaid but the blood is still pouring out. Even when you win, the problems just keep coming. But the trouble isn't that the victories aren't real - it's that as a society we can't allow ourselves to be lulled by them and take our eyes off the prize. Change, like healing, is incremental and often it comes maddeningly slow (sometimes two steps forward and one step back). But we can't let that cause us to stop trying to make it happen, any more than we can be satisfied and call it done when we alleviate one symptom of a larger societal illness. The disease rages on.

It's wrong to suggest that the monumental efforts of lawyers who won the battles of the past were wasted, or even counterproductive, or that the role of lawyers in struggles against poverty, discrimination and civil rights violations is any less important today. We must redouble our efforts, and also recognize that we can't do it alone. Legal victories are vital, because they can offer direct relief to the client involved and because they can start the healing process, but much broader engagement, and vigilance, are required to cure what ails us.


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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