March 2018 Bar Bulletin
By Eric P. Gillett
King County Bar Foundation
There are probably many of you who do not understand how important you are to the success of the King County Bar Foundation’s annual Breakfast with Champions. The fact is the breakfast cannot succeed without you and your support.
As I write this column in mid-February, the Winter Olympics are under way in PyeongChang, South Korea. A U.S. Olympian just won our first gold medal in the slopestyle event: Red Gerard, a 17-year-old from Colorado, who his family reports seemed destined for this kind of victory from the time he was just 2. So, after 15 years of practice, he may have achieved the pinnacle of his sports career. And yet, like many others of his generation, his previous attention to the made-for-TV Olympics was minimal. I chuckled at his statement to reporters, “I just didn’t really think I knew what the Olympics is. I kind of grew up just watching Dew Tour and X Games. I’d never really realized how big it is.” To his credit, I think he knows now that it’s a pretty big deal.
I’m reminded that there was a time I didn’t realize how big a deal our Breakfast with Champions is. When I began attending the annual breakfast as a younger lawyer, I understood very little about the event. To me, it was not much more than a breakfast where a bunch of lawyers sat at large, round tables, clinking glasses of orange juice or coffee as they ate a quick breakfast and listened to a speaker drone on about the state of our nation or of our world. I knew there was also a request for a donation, but I figured the cost of my seat at the table supplemented my small donation. I was also sure there was plenty of money coming from somewhere else. And didn’t attorneys volunteer their time? Much more couldn’t be needed and I shouldn’t worry. Others were taking care of it. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The Breakfast with Champions depends entirely on you. It is the primary fundraiser for the many pro bono services supported by your King County Bar Association, which runs one of the most well-organized and supportive pro bono programs in the nation. These programs include the Housing Justice Project, the Family Law Mentor Program, several Neighborhood Legal Clinics, Volunteer Legal Services, the Kinship Care Solutions Project, and the Self-Help Plus Program. KCBA also provides more than $140,000 in scholarships to diverse students at both the UW and Seattle University law schools.
So, how does your donation support these pro bono and diversity programs? Why isn’t it enough that lawyers volunteer their time? I think the best way to understand this is to realize that these programs are very much like any private law office. They have the same expenses, including rent, office supplies, and lay and attorney staff. Many of you volunteer your time and expertise providing pro bono services. But, as you see, that is only one part of the process. As a lawyer in private practice, I understand very well that I cannot do my job if I don’t have the infrastructure to support me. That infrastructure requires money; lots of money.
One thing your pro bono programs are not short on is clients. A First World problem for any other law firm, your pro bono programs are turning clients away because they don’t have the resources to support all of the people who need our services. In other words, your pro bono programs need more from you, much more. Likewise, the cost of a legal education keeps increasing. Too many students upon graduation are saddled with extraordinary debt. Minority law students feel the impact of this debt more. Your donation will help defray this expense.
For each of the past several years, the Breakfast with Champions has raised more than $300,000. The breakfast usually sets the table for about 1,000 lawyers and guests. We need to raise more money. This year, if everyone at your table would write a check for at least $500, the impact we can have on helping those in need and promoting diversity in our profession would be extraordinary. I know it’s a lot of money. I know some people can’t do it and that’s okay. But if you can, please do. And if you are a table captain, I encourage you to make it so.
I have the honor this year to be the President of the King County Bar Foundation. The Foundation is charged to raise money for your bar’s pro bono programs and diversity scholarships. The Foundation Board includes managing partners from several local law firms as well as the general counsel from some of our most well-known local companies, and top attorneys in our state government. These fine women and men take it upon themselves to see that their businesses and others do the best they can to support the Foundation’s mission. Our job is to convince others to give and to lead by example. It is expected that I should understand the great financial need at stake. It is my purpose today to communicate that need to you and call you to act at the upcoming breakfast.
Over the past several years, King County has enjoyed a booming economy, housing prices continue to skyrocket and until recently, the stock market was meteoric. Many of us can cheer our good fortune. At the same time, the economy for many others in our community is choking. Rising housing prices mean rising rents. The number of hourly wage workers without a safety net continues to grow. According to a recent article in The Seattle Times, King County has the third largest population of homeless in the country. And while that ranking can be debated by shifting the way we count homelessness, the problem is undeniable. Federal funding for social services is drying up. What it says to me is that there are many good people in our community who need our help because on the short list of essential expenses, such as food and shelter, attorney bills do not have a place.
In Washington, more than 70 percent of low-income households experience at least one civil legal problem annually. Of these, more than three-fourths of households face a civil legal problem without an attorney. KCBA’s Pro Bono Services volunteers provide free legal help valued at more than $7 million annually. You can see that there is a big gap between the free legal services available and their need.
We need to keep people under shelter (Housing Justice Project); we need to help families fairly separate and establish safe parenting plans (Family Law Mentor Program); we need to advise people on issues ranging from bankruptcies to elder law or immigration (Volunteer Legal Services); and we need to protect children in physical danger (Kinship Care Solutions). These are only some of the services your donations support. We also struggle to build a bar and bench that look like the community they serve. Improving diversity in our legal profession happens when you lend your financial support to our diversity scholarships.
The Breakfast with Champions is set for March 20 at the Westin Hotel. You want to be there. We will have more than 1,000 of your closest friends attending. Dahlia Lithwick, our keynote speaker, and a dynamic legal journalist and commentator, will provide us with her theories and insights about the state of our nation. And we will spotlight for you a wonderful story about one of your newest colleagues, a 2L from Seattle University, who has overcome incredible challenges to count herself among our ranks. As you will see, she is already making a difference.
Red Gerard is one of several elite athletes who will experience the benefits of an Olympic gold medal — public accolades and the satisfaction of reaching a goal. The good news is that you also have the opportunity to have a similar experience. By showing up on the morning of March 20, by putting your check or credit card number inside the “Envelope of Champions,” you will count yourself among those who recognize on that day that being a champion is important; that being of service to those in need is our greatest calling. I’ll see you there when we go for the gold together.