President’s Column: Equal Access to Justice
Too many lawyers…? According to Martindale-Hubbell and the American Bar Association, there are over 1.2 million licensed attorneys in the United States. The number of in-state lawyers licensed by the State Bar of Texas is approximately 80,000. Except for California and New York, that is more attorneys than any other state. According to Martindale-Hubbell, that is more attorneys than there are in all 27 member countries in the European Union…combined. With Texas’ estimated total statewide population of over 26 million in 2012, that is a ratio of approximately one lawyer for every 330 Texans. That is too many lawyers…Right…?
One lawyer for every 330 Texans. With so many lawyers, all Texans should have equal access to legal services and to the civil courts. Right…? All they would have to do is to contact one or more of the approximately 80,000 licensed attorneys in the State of Texas. So, do people already have access to legal services? Maybe…?
Maybe not. The town where I was reared has about 1,900 folks living there today, so statistically there should be six lawyers in town…To the contrary, there were none there when I was growing-up, …and there are significantly fewer than six today.
Most law students graduate from their respective law schools, take the bar exam and gravitate towards large urban areas to make their fortune, and maybe even to make a name for themselves. Fewer travel into rural areas where the pace of practice may be a bit slower, and the clients may even be fewer, but the legal needs are no less pressing for those in need of legal services. Access to quality legal services in certain rural portions of our state has been a concern of the profession for years and continues to be a focus of ensuring access to justice statewide.
But you do not have to live in a rural area to lack equal access to legal services. You can live in a large metroplex akin to our own and still not have a sufficient number of legal professionals to assist you with your legal needs. And then there is the matter of being able to afford the legal services you need.
Aside from physical access, there is fiscal access. Attorneys provide a service, and charge for those services. Courts charge fees associated with court proceedings and the administration of justice. A significant portion of our society cannot afford to hire an attorney or pay the fees associated with addressing their legal needs.
It is well documented that the consequences of not assisting at a critical legal juncture in someone’s life often exacerbates a problem and can lead to further adverse consequences and increased societal costs in the near future. An unresolved family legal issue can lead to further dysfunction and legal issues within that family. A personal legal issue affecting employment or employment eligibility can result in loss of employment or lack of employment opportunity. A wrongful eviction can result in another homeless person. An incorrect utility bill can lead to wrongful disconnection of service. The list of consequences resulting from lack of access to lawyers and justice are too numerous to mention here, but are no less prevalent…and the societal costs of legal inaction at the critical stage continue to increase over time.
It is no surprise that the economic downturn, significant reductions in grants based on Interest On Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA) and substantial reductions in government funding for legal serves to the poor have signaled difficult financial times for legal aid efforts and organizations…and that translates into fewer services and a decreased ability to help those in need.
So, yes, I have heard it said that there are “…too many lawyers…”; but I have not yet heard it said that there are too many lawyers willing and able to assist those in our community who are in greatest need. I have not yet heard it said that there are too many lawyers willing to put people above profits. I have not yet heard it said that the needs of the unserved are being fully met, and that the term “underserved” is now obsolete.
The Dallas legal community and the Dallas Bar Association recognize these issues and are continuing their work to address them through a variety of programming and initiatives. Each year, the annual Equal Access to Justice (EAJ) Campaign raises funds and awareness for the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program, which is a collaborative effort between the Dallas Bar Association and Legal Services of NorthWest Texas. Through the EAJ Campaign, Dallas-area lawyers provide generous contributions to assist in the provision of pro bono legal services to the unserved and underserved in our community. These funds help to support pro bono and indigent legal services, as well as the various DVAP Legal Clinics in town, which include East Dallas (Grace United Methodist Church), South Dallas (MLK Center), West Dallas (Marillac Social Services Center), Friendship West Baptist Church, The Potter’s House, and the Triangle Neighborhood (St. Phillips Community Center), as well as the Garland Legal Clinic (Salvation Army – Downtown Garland). DVAP also supports the Housing Crisis Center, and the Vickery Meadow Legal Clinic (through the DBA’s Pro Bono Activities Committee).
We are asking Dallas lawyers to contribute their unique expertise and good fortune towards this effort to promote pro bono and indigent legal services. Give money or give time. The benevolence and generosity of the Dallas legal community is on display each year as we meet or exceed our fundraising objectives in this effort, but the task of raising funds for equal access is no less daunting. This year’s goal for the EAJ Campaign is $700,000, and through the efforts of EAJ Campaign Chair Michael Hurst and the entire EAJ Campaign Team, it will take the collective effort of every Dallas-area lawyer to meet or exceed this goal.
But if you are not willing or able to contribute monetarily, give an even more valuable asset—give a portion of your time. As I stated to the DBA throughout my Presidential term, I am requesting that each member of the DBA give 12 hours of their time towards the work of the DBA…and the EAJ Campaign, DVAP and pro bono are great ways to fulfill that commitment. Many of you have undoubtedly already fulfilled this commitment, but volunteering at a legal clinic, rendering counsel to someone in dire need and perhaps even taking a pro bono case all go a long way towards assisting those less fortunate while also advancing our profession.
Too many lawyers…? With approximately 11,000 members, there are more members of the Dallas Bar Association than there are members of almost half of the state bars in the U.S. Let’s show them our commitment to doing the work that we as lawyers are uniquely qualified (and obligated) to do.