by Pennsylvania Bar Association President William Carlucci, Esq.
(Appeared in the ACBA Lawyers Journal on Oct. 14, 2005)
When the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s Legal Services to the Public Committee and our Pro Bono Office began planning for last May’s Fourth Annual Pro Bono Conference which was held in Pittsburgh, the planners faced a unique challenge—there were so many great programs providing civil legal aid in Allegheny County, it was hard to pick which ones to highlight. Lawyers on Loan, Older & Wiser, the Pittsburgh Pro Bono Partnership with such signature efforts as the McKees Rocks Community Clinic and the Minority and Women Owned Business Clinic…these programs and many others underscore the leadership of the Allegheny County Bar Association in promoting legal services for the neediest among us.
As PBA President, I know that pro bono services and civil legal aid varies greatly from county to county. However good the local programs, the need for pro bono and civil legal aid support is high everywhere. Despite the wonderful efforts of the ACBA and other organizations, too many Pennsylvanians in Pittsburgh and elsewhere are denied access to justice because they are unable to pay for legal representation. The best estimates from the field suggest that only 1 in 5 poor clients facing civil legal concerns receive the support of a legal aid or pro bono attorney. The PBA is committed to making a difference in those numbers. Our efforts are coordinated through the PBA’s Pro Bono Office, operated by Pro Bono Coordinator David Trevaskis and Administrative Assistant Dale Schell.
The Pro Bono Office supports the PBA Legal Services to the Public Committee, the PBA standing committee responsible for promoting civil legal aid for the Commonwealth’s poor. It also staffs the Military and Veterans’ Affairs Committee with its Legal Assistance to Military Personnel Pro Bono Program. Occasional Task Forces, such as the current Task Force on Student Loan Forgiveness and Repayment Assistance, target specific areas of concern. Allegheny County lawyers are vital players in nearly every PBA pro bono effort; current ACBA President Bob Racunas, a past chair of the Legal Services to the Public Committee and an active member of the Task Force, is but one of many who have given freely of their time and energy to support the PBA’s work in the field.
The PBA Pro Bono Office frequently highlights ACBA successes in PBA electronic and hard copy media. Spotlight features on ACBA pro bono and civil legal aid efforts allow pro bono programs from every corner of the Commonwealth to look to Allegheny County for new ideas and technical assistance. The poet T.S. Eliot once admonished an aspiring writer that “great poets never imitate; they steal.” Pennsylvania pro bono programs have followed Eliot’s direction and “stolen” many good ideas from ACBA pro bono efforts, from hosting local Older & Wiser programs to creating their own “signature program” clinics. The PBA has often looked to Allegheny County to get ideas for new directions in the civil legal aid field.
So what can the PBA do to support the ACBA pro bono work?
We can support the delivery of unique legal services to Allegheny County clients. The PBA’s new Military and Veterans’ Affairs Committee has taken over the coordination of the Legal Assistance to Military Personnel Pro Bono Program and is working with the ACBA to make sure that the legal needs of local service members and their families are met. LAMP attorneys, many of whom are veterans, maintain a vibrant listserv that has provided a pro bono attorney for every case presented to date.
We can expand statewide resources for civil legal aid. The PBA, in cooperation with Pennsylvania Legal Services, is extending the use of the pro se PALawHelp.org website through virtual law clinics such as the program developed for the Office of General Counsel now operating in Dauphin, Perry and Cumberland Counties. Over the past year, the PALawHelp.org site has gone from an occasionally used site to one that receives nearly 9000 hits a month. An IOLTA grant is funding the rollout across the Commonwealth of the PAprobono.net website, an online resource for legal advocates, including pro bono and legal services attorneys, law professors and law students, and other social services advocates across the country. Paprobono.net is an all purpose site at which the pro bono attorney can sign up to take a case, review materials on a variety of legal topics, and explore upcoming local and statewide events. Although only a few cases have been placed through the site to date, the PBA is committed to placing more than 1000 cases through Paprobono.net by next summer.
We can celebrate the great pro bono work of Pittsburgh lawyers. The Pittsburgh law firms of Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote P.C. and Thorp, Reed & Armstrong L.L.P. won the PBA’s top pro bono award, the Goffman Award, last spring for their support of the Lawyers on Loan program that placed two experienced associates with Neighborhood Legal Services for a year to work alongside legal services professionals. In addition, the PBA’s Legal Services to the Public Committee honored Immediate Past ACBA President Jim Carroll in September with the inaugural Jeffrey A. Ernico Award in recognition of both Carroll’s and the ACBA’s work in hiring a full-time pro bono coordinator and developing a model public interest attorney loan forgiveness program.
Pennsylvania is a diverse state with lots of obstacles impeding the access to justice for the neediest among us. ACBA pro bono innovation and energy is making a difference in overcoming those obstacles. The partnership of the PBA with the ACBA helps even the playing field for the poor and offers the promise of a better day ahead for our overall system of justice.