The Power to Change

power to changeLast week was Celebrate Pro Bono week. I attended the Second Annual Conference on Access to Justice, devoted to using pro bono service to help close the justice gap. All seven Illinois Supreme Court Justices and at least 350 people attended.  The Court established the Access to Justice Commission last June and it has been one of the most active ATJ Commissions in the country. Last week’s conference was both a celebration of progress made and a call to action to fill a great need.

Bryan Stevenson delivered a truly compelling address. The executive director of the Montgomery, Alabama based Equal Justice Initiative, he talked about the numbers of people not being served and how by using the “ordinary system” we have failed to provide access to justice for way too many. He went on to say that we cannot do anything about the problems of the poor needing and not having access to lawyers and the justice system without three things: 1) proximity, 2) hope, and 3) being committed to being uncomfortable.

By being proximate, close to, face to face with people and their problems, we develop a greater and transformative understanding about what humanity requires.

Bryan told of his work with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee. The director sent him to visit a prisoner on death row just to deliver a message.  As instructed, he told the prisoner “You’re not in danger of execution anytime in the next year and you’ll get a lawyer down her in the next six months.”  The prisoner stopped him said, “Wait, say that again.” When Bryan repeated the message, the prisoner grabbed Bryan’s hands and said, “Thank you! I have not wanted to have my family visit for fear I wouldn’t be here long enough.  Now I will tell them to come.  I will see my family again.” The guards shuffled the prisoner out, but not before he stopped and sang several verses of a hymn. That experience changed Bryan’s relationship to the law. The message he relayed is that when we are close to problems and difficult situations, we see things and hear things in a different way—which makes life-changing differences. Pro bono gives us proximity that gives us the power to change.

The second element Bryan talked about as necessary is to be hopeful.  We must not be willing to accept the status quo even knowing it is not just. The kind of hopefulness we need is “orientation of the spirit.” By that he meant we should be willing to position ourselves against indifference.  Hopefulness is fueled when we dive into pro bono work and talk about the big questions and the big challenges to justice (Take a look at this infographic from LLMInfo in honor of Pro Bono Week to see 5 major law firms that have met this challenge).

Third, we must be willing to be committed to be uncomfortable.  Unfortunately we are programmed to do the opposite.  We need to come to terms with the proposition that we will be successful if we are uncomfortable.  This is the opposite of what we tend to think, i.e., that when we are proficient we are comfortable.  We must crave the discomfort.

After the keynote, a major portion of the conference was devoted to presentations on the “state of the State” on pro bono and strategies for success. I was proud to hear about the leadership of our judiciary around the state in putting into place powerful and creative initiatives to increase pro bono access to justice.  For example:

  • Cook County Municipal Court: a program that provides much-needed representation to low-income people facing a jury trial without a lawyer
  • Northern District of Illinois & Chicago Lawyers’ Committee: a program that provides assistance to low income people in certain federal court claims settlement conferences
  • Central District of Illinois: a program that offers representation to indigent plaintiffs in civil rights cases (with an expert in prisoner civil rights available for free consultation)
  • Madison County: a program that gives legal advice in thirty minute appointments on the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month; training is provided
  • Will County: a program that assists self-represented litigants with settlement on two scheduled “pro se days” per month

To learn more about how you can get involved in these initiatives or in the work of the Access to Justice Commission generally, contact the Executive Director of the Access to Justice Commission, Danielle Hirsch, at The power to change is before us; let’s seize it together.

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