I just had a discussion that reminded me of an award I earned ten years ago, and my thoughts when I received it. This is a slightly modified version of my letter to the Virginia State Bar magazine about the award. It's even more relevant with the current attacks by the party-in-power on anything to help the less fortunate. I'm pleased that more and more lawyers are stepping up to take on a case or two (Legal Aid won't flood anyone with cases, they try to hold it to one or two a year per lawyer)
I was honored to receive one of the “Pro Bono” awards given by the Virginia State Bar for volunteering my time and expertise to those who could not afford a lawyer. It was a total surprise – at the time I didn’t even know the award existed. I appreciate the recognition and receiving the award.
When I learned of the award, I thought, “What’s the big deal? I was just doing my job”. My guess is my three colleagues who also won the award feel the same way. We’re just doing our job.
And that’s it. That’s the Key: “Doing my – OUR – job.”
I am a third generation lawyer – my grandfather, his brother (at one time a Roanoke Hustings—now Circuit—Court judge), my father, my uncle, and now my cousin and I, were and are all lawyers. Our family has always worked to help others with their legal problems even if they couldn’t afford the fee.
Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, I remember my father talking about getting a Legal Aid service started in the Roanoke area. Trying for funding, trying to get other lawyers to take on cases “pro bono” and the frustration of not enough money or lawyers to meet the demand. Through this, my father, Col. James P. Hart, Jr., taught me that it’s the duty of all lawyers to take pro bono cases in areas where we have the knowledge and skills to help.
So when legal aid makes a referral, and it’s an area I can handle competently, I’m going to take it. Given my upbringing, my job – my duty – is to accept it. Most of the time the cases aren’t hard and I know I’ve helped someone, which is a good feeling. Occasionally one gets a little wild, but that’s life as a lawyer whether or not there’s a fee.
My plea is to all lawyers: call your local legal aid office and tell them you want to help. Talk to them about the areas you can handle or are willing to learn. Agree to take two cases a year; Agree to do “Hotline” telephone advice for an hour every other month. Many legal aid agencies have “how to do it” guides for the routine matters such as a no-fault divorce. Their staff attorneys will answer questions and help if you get an unfamiliar rough spot.
Poor people usually don’t have complicated problems – they just have problems that need a little bit of a lawyer’s time. Give that bit of time.
It’s our job.