October 2017 Bar Bulletin
By Reagan Dunn and Rod Dembowski
During our careers in private practice, we both volunteered our time on many pro bono cases. While often challenging, these cases were always enriching and gave us a deep appreciation for all attorneys in our community who volunteer to represent others.
As King County councilmembers, it has been our honor to continue to support pro bono services. Every October, the King County Council recognizes National Pro Bono Week. This year Pro Bono Week is October 22–28.
The week honors the importance of critical pro bono legal services that help low-income King County residents access the justice system for their civil legal needs related to immigration, domestic violence, wrongful eviction, denial of veteran’s benefits and more. Donated legal services play a vital role in ensuring equal access to justice.
Each year, we are proud to observe this week in partnership with King County’s legal community. In our society, attorneys are instrumental in ensuring all people, regardless of how much money they earn, have an equal and fair shot at justice. As lawyers, we can use the privilege of our legal training to serve our community and help fulfill our country’s promise of “equal justice for all.”
When taking our Oath of Attorney, we promised, “I will never reject, from any consideration personal to myself, the cause of the defenseless or oppressed, or delay unjustly the cause of any person.”
Today, as federal funding for legal aid faces drastic cuts and the need for these services continues to rise, this responsibility is more important than ever. Unlike criminal cases where the indigent are provided an attorney according to the Constitution, there is no guarantee of legal assistance in civil cases — no matter the potential outcomes, which can be life altering and long lasting.
Every day, civil legal aid means the difference between being housed and without shelter, being safe or in danger, and being employed or jobless. Every day, however, people are forced to face their civil legal problems alone, without any legal help from an attorney. When a person receives legal help for their civil problem, the outcomes can be incredible.
“Maria’s” story is a powerful example of the impact of legal aid. Maria is an elderly King County resident who speaks very little English. She and her husband were unable to work for a period of time and accumulated $15,000 in credit card debt to cover basic expenses. Not being able to read any of the notices sent by the creditor, Maria was taken advantage of by a debt consolidation company.
With the combined efforts of KCBA legal aid staff, a Cantonese interpreter and a KCBA volunteer attorney, Maria was able to successfully negotiate a payment plan with the credit card company and terminate her relationship with the debt consolidation company. Maria is working again, she is no longer consumed by debt, and she is able to save money for retirement.
There are roughly 1.2 million low-income people in Washington (nearly 18 percent of our state), defined as living at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty level. For context, this is less than $15,000 per year for a single person and less than $30,000 per year for a family of four. Recent research conducted by Washington State University tells us 7 out of 10 low-income Washingtonians experience at least one civil legal problem each year, but only one in four can get legal help to solve their problems.
For the remaining three low-income families who are not able to access legal aid, private attorneys costing $200 to $300 per hour are beyond their reach. But that does not mean they do not deserve a fair shot at justice. This is where private, pro bono attorneys are needed.
In 2016, the King County Bar Association’s Pro Bono Services Program generated 27,743 volunteer hours from 1,129 attorneys (roughly 20 percent of KCBA members) who provided legal help to 9,028 low-income people. Imagine the impact if even half of KCBA members did pro bono work.
This October, the King County Council encourages attorneys to donate their time and expertise to families that can’t afford legal help. Find out how to volunteer with KCBA Pro Bono Services at https://www.kcba.org/For-Lawyers/Pro-Bono-Services. There are many organizations around King County that need volunteers. Here’s another place to start: https://legalfoundation.org/volunteer/.
The Washington State Bar Association sets an aspirational goal of 30 pro bono hours per year per attorney. WSBA gives special recognition to attorneys who volunteer 50 hours or more in a single year. In 2016, 1,700 attorneys in our state reached that goal. If your time is stretched thin, please consider donating to the Legal Foundation of Washington’s Campaign for Equal Justice at: https://legalfoundation.org/the-campaign-for-equal-justice/.
The Campaign for Equal Justice is a statewide, unified fundraising drive that attracts major support from law firms, individual attorneys and the public to support 23 civil legal aid organizations around the state and helps tens of thousands of low-income families access justice each year.
Additionally, the campaign partners closely with legal aid programs and local bar associations to host joint events and fund drives. Right now, the Campaign for Equal Justice and the King County Bar Foundation are accepting contributions from firms for the annual King County Law Firm Campaign for Equal Justice at: www.LegalFoundation.org/KingCountyCampaign.
This Pro Bono Week, we encourage you to take a minute to remember the true power and responsibility of being an attorney.