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Minding the Gap: Addressing Inequalities Through Pro Bono

October 18, 2013

(Iris Dooling is a Research and Partnerships Fellow at the Taproot Foundation.)

PBW_logo_805There are many gaps in American society: the Achievement Gap between low- and higher-income students, the Wage Gap between men and women in the workplace, and the Justice Gap -- to name just a few. Although not as frequently publicized as some of the others, the Justice Gap refers to the growing number of low-income individuals who are too poor to afford legal services but not poor enough to qualify for legal aid.

While defendants in criminal cases have the right to a lawyer, low-income people facing significant civil legal problems -- divorce, foreclosure, bankruptcy, child custody battles, immigration status issues, domestic abuse charges -- are often left with no choice but to represent themselves in court. Even individuals who qualify for legal aid do not have the same kind of access to competent legal advice as paying clients. According a 2009 report from the Legal Services Corporation, on average there is only one legal aid attorney available for every 6,415 low-income people, compared to one private attorney for every 429 people with incomes above the poverty line.

Many in the legal profession are working to address this gap by providing pro bono legal services directly to low-income individuals or to organizations that serve their needs. Although essential, their efforts only fill a small fraction of the actual need. According to Cynthia Domingo-Foraste, an attorney at Safe Horizon, an agency that supports victims of domestic abuse, "For every [individual] I am able to help, I must turn another away. Pro bono work can go a long way toward closing this gap. As lawyers, we have the tools to help those in need, but we have to commit to using them."

In order to draw national attention to the Justice Gap, in 2009 the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service created Pro Bono Week to highlight the need for pro bono legal services for low-income individuals, recognize and thank attorneys who provide such services, and recruit more attorneys into the pro bono camp. Every year since then, law firms, bar associations, law schools and courts, and corporate councils across the country have celebrated National Pro Bono Week during the third week of October with events ranging from clinics where low-income individuals can come for free legal advice, to information sessions for pro bono lawyers, to media outreach efforts designed to highlight the pervasiveness and consequences of the Justice Gap.

As noted, that gap is just one of many in society. And just as dedicated members of the legal community are engaging in pro bono work to help address and mitigate the consequences of the Justice Gap, members of the business community are busy volunteering their time and talent to help nonprofits and charities working to address the needs of theelderly, homeless, addicted, or mentally ill, and otherwise vulnerable members of society. The Taproot Foundation, a pioneer in the pro bono movement, continues to do what it can to facilitate and promote those efforts.

Inspired by the American Bar Association, Taproot joined the Pro Bono Week celebration in 2012, hosting multiple ScopeAthon events -- which bring nonprofits and other organizations together to map out a pro bono project in a single day -- and recognizing skilled professionals who donate their time to nonprofits in need of their services.

This year, Taproot will be working to leverage Pro Bono Week activities to spread awareness of and celebrate the heroes of the pro bono movement. Partners in that effort include Net Impact, which is hosting a pro bono assessment session at its 2013 Net Impact conference (Oct. 24-26); NPower, which will be hosting pro bono tech workshops throughout the week; CreateAthon, which once again will be hosting its signature 24-hour pro bono marketing marathon in locations in the U.S. and Canada; and Ashoka, which is spearheading a social media campaign to raise awareness of Pro Bono Week activities.

How can you join the movement? Well, you can:

For more information, visit the Taproot site.

-- Iris Dooling

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