Access to Justice: Provost David Hall Addresses Equal Justice Conference

Provost David Hall of Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, was the closing speaker for the recent Equal Justice Conference. His inspirational remarks, first printed in the Summer 1999 Dialogue, follow.

It is truly an honor to serve as the closing keynote speaker for this first Equal Justice Conference. As dean and as provost of a major university I get quite a number of speaking invitations. But this was one that I wanted to do for personal and selfish reasons.

First, I am deeply committed, as a lawyer and a professor of law, to the ideal of equal justice. There is no challenge facing this profession more critical than ensuring that we provide equal access to the justice system. I knew this conference would aid us in this quest.

Second, I served for over three years on the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service. When I joined, one idea that we explored was the possibility of a joint Pro Bono Committee/National Legal Aid and Defender Association conference. I watched that idea grow and blossom into something real and meaningful. So I was excited about contributing some of my ideas to this historic and groundbreaking event.

As I stated earlier, keeping the doors of justice open and equal to all is an ideal that I cherish and promote. The people in this room are the best examples of that ideal, and I deeply respect the way that each of you nurtures it on a daily basis.

Over the years of attending the ABA Pro Bono Conference, I gained an even deeper respect for your work and as a result your role in the legal profession. I am not here, however, to tell you that pro bono and legal services work is important; you already know that.

I am here to tell you that it is indispensable to the life of this profession and society. I am here to tell you that it is the saving grace of the legal profession. It is the well from which this profession must drink if it is to save itself from a parched existence. Thus, I want to speak briefly about "the saving grace of the legal profession."

Grace is a concept that lawyers tend not to invoke very often, because it carries with it strong spiritual and religious connotations that make some people uneasy. In any event, Black’s Law Dictionary defines grace as "a favor or indulgence as distinguished from a right." It suggests that, through acts of grace, a person receives something to which she/he is not entitled.

Though some traditionalists would like to view pro bono and legal services in civil matters as grace that we bestow upon the public and for which the public has no right to receive, I would like to turn that definition on its head. For if we truly and deeply understood the social function of our public service commitment and our pro bono obligations, then we would understand that they are not gifts that we bestow upon others; they contain unintended blessings and consequences that ultimately will save this profession from itself.

Saving grace is a spiritual concept that implies that there are blessings and consequences that we do not earn, but which nevertheless can rescue us from a fate that we do deserve. It says that despite the shortcomings of a person or system, there will be some process or force that will intervene on our behalf and save us from ourselves. If we are creative and courageous enough to analyze legal services, pro bono and equal justice work from this perspective, then I believe we all would have an even deeper appreciation for the work that so many of you in this room do each day.

The challenge for this historic conference is to reconceptualize the role of legal services delivery within the legal profession. I submit to you that it is dangerous and destructive to continue to view legal services and pro bono work as acts of charity. Not because charity is a bad thing, but because as [people working in the legal profession,] we are under a moral, legal and professional command to do these things.

The new step that I am trying to add is the notion that not only is it not charity, but it is the best cure for what ails us as a profession. We must position and articulate what we do here as the saving grace for the challenges of the 21st century.

The compelling element in the concept of saving grace is actions that we think we are doing for others turn out to benefit us more than we imagine and certainly more than we intend. It is the unintended and unplanned-for effects of public service and pro bono that make them the saving grace.

I think metaphors and images are powerful tools that allow us to grasp and understand concepts that otherwise are somewhat elusive. When I think about the legal profession and some of the challenges that it faces, I sometimes get the image of a desert.

A desert comes to mind not because there are not wonderful and meaningful things that lawyers do each day. I think of a desert because this profession, as presently structured, does not appear capable of sustaining the life of all of its members or bringing forth the new ideas that feed the deep need of this society. It is a desert because we are often deserted by the very society that we serve. Lawyer jokes reflect more than just this society’s need to laugh. They are a reflection of this society’s deep ambivalence concerning this profession’s worth.

We are on a desert because so many lawyers have lost their way. Some came into the profession for noble reasons, but they got trapped in the hot sands of prestige, power and money. They wander in circles trying to accumulate more sand, but they never find an oasis that gives their lives and work meaning and fulfillment.

In every desert, however, there is a well. I deeply believe that pro bono, legal services and equal justice are the wellsprings of hope for this profession. If more lawyers drink from this deep well, which was dug and drilled without human hands, then not only will they quench their thirst, but they will find a reservoir of ideas and energy that will transform this profession and this society.

One of the most tumultuous winds that we have encountered in the desert has been the profession’s growing concern with profit and the bottom line. Certainly the legal profession should be financially rewarding and those who participate in it should be able to take care of themselves and their families. This need in some organizations, however, has been transformed into an obsession with profit, bonuses and institutional perks. This obsession unchecked can only lead to negative competitive behavior that often forces people and organizations to compromise their values and walk on the edge of the professional ethics line.

Many cross over daily because the lure of profit makes it very tempting to do so. Those firms that have seriously committed themselves to pro bono and public service are inserting countervailing values into their institution, which tempers and cuts down on the focus and obsession with the bottom line, which, as a result, becomes more broadly defined. It becomes a bottom line that contains human accomplishments as well as monetary achievements. Though it was not adopted for that purpose, pro bono is saving the firm from eating itself alive.

As we launch into the 21st century, we must understand, at the deepest level, the role that these values play in our individual and collective survival. I believe that there is a direct relationship between the esteem in which a profession is held and the amount of good in which the society believes the members of that profession are engaged.

The esteem of this profession will not rise because we master legal technological innovations. It will not rise because we put in place cost containment strategies, although that certainly would help. It will not rise because we engage in sophisticated marketing and advertising strategies. I believe that the esteem and respect this profession enjoys will rise when the public sees it as caring for others as much as it does for itself. It will rise when we are viewed as angels of justice and not just agents of law.

There are many recent studies indicating that numerous lawyers are dissatisfied with the practice of law and are feeling unfulfilled in their professional lives. Many factors have contributed to this phenomenon, and various solutions have been offered.

It is clear to me that it is difficult for many lawyers to find meaning in their daily routines. They are frequently engaged in activities that seem to benefit only themselves and their clients. In many instances, lawyers neither identify with nor find personal satisfaction in serving these clients.

Pro bono service is one important mechanism through which lawyers can reconnect with their original calling or discover that they did not have a calling in the first place. When we serve people who cannot return the favor in monetary ways, then we are opening up parts of ourselves that are easily kept closed, and we also make deposits in the moral well of this society that often runs dry.

But the real saving grace is greater than many of us imagined. Buried deep within the cloud of this society’s retreat from helping the poor is a silver lining. Many of us have come to accept the harsh reality that government cannot and will not solve the critical problems that face so many people in this society. We also know that community based organizations do not have the resources or expertise to, on their own, bring about a great transformation in society.

But if we can connect their deep commitment and insights with the expertise that dedicated lawyers and other professionals have, then we can create a vision and structure of social transformation. This transformation occurs not when we give charity to communities in need, but when we see it as a moral obligation that will ultimately benefit us as much as it benefits others.

This well called legal services and pro bono is one of the major pathways to equal justice. For justice cannot mean only that people have access to the courthouse. It means that their lives can be radically and permanently changed. If all we do through our pro bono and legal services work is keep a mother from being evicted, then we have not dug deep enough into the well.

We must use our skills, along with the skills of others, to create not only housing but ownership; to create not only the jobs, but the possibility of owning stock in community based enterprises that truly serve those communities. Certainly we cannot do this by ourselves, but we can lead the way for businesses and other professionals to tap into this well. If we can be creative with our moral commands and if we can demonstrate the benefits to the profession and to individuals within the profession, then others surely will follow.

We must not be viewed as those who only help to divide up the pie. We must be part of the process that makes the pie larger, bakes it, and even writes the recipe for future social bakers.

In conclusion, this conference and this effort must no longer be a small part of the ABA’s programmatic thrust. This conference must usher in a movement that re-defines what it means to be a lawyer.

Collectively, we must develop a blueprint that the profession will be convinced to follow, not because they are charitable, but because they understand how essential this movement is to this profession’s survival and growth. This movement must ring from every courthouse in America, from every law office and every law school.

When we do so, this conference will not be a place where only those who are already committed to the ideals come. It will be a destination of choice for any serious lawyer and legal professional who wants to be a part of the future direction of this profession. This movement must not exist in words and workshops alone. It must embrace a spirit that emanates from those who profess and live by these ideals.

This conference, wherever we meet, will become the holy ground through which lawyers are transformed, inspired and renewed. It will become the Jerusalem, the Mecca for converts and the converted. But they will not be converted to legal dogma and rules that stifle creativity. They will be drawn by a genuine and intellectually compelling manifesto for the legal profession.

Those of you gathered here today, those of you who were the founders of this idea, must understand how essential, precious and morally compelling the work you do is to the future of this profession. You are the keepers of the well that ultimately will transform the desert into a beautiful oasis of justice and love.

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