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Charitable Priorities: The Case for Legal Services

by Gerald A. McHugh

Almost every day, the average American household can expect to receive multiple pleas from charities. Unmet needs are limitless, and the number of worthy causes that have been established to address those needs are just as broad. How does one choose between fighting homelessness, illness, poverty, and discrimination? Do we support the arts or save the environment? Several years ago, one commentator expressed concern that the relentlessness of charitable solicitation ran the risk of dulling our sensibilities, and coined the phrase “compassion fatigue,” to describe the urge to throw up one’s hands and tune out all such pleas.

As professionals, we are doubly challenged, because all of us can expect to receive a separate wave of entreaties in our offices. Against this backdrop, how can one argue that support for legal services should be a priority? I am not certain how to make that case to the public at large, but I do think there are reasons why as attorneys we should prioritize support for legal services and public interest organizations. The first and most important is that we are uniquely situated to understand the importance of representation of the poor and the disadvantaged. Being trained in law, we understand the value of our civil institutions. Because we are firsthand participants in the adversary system, we know better than anyone else the importance of effective representation and advocacy. Beginning my career as a federal law clerk, I would observe cases in which pro se litigants would struggle in their attempt to present what appeared to be a valid claim, all the time thinking how their situation would be different with effective advocacy. Even in our own practices, there are unquestionably times when we watch a fellow lawyer taking a case lightly, and cannot help but think how the client’s position would be so much better served with a lawyer truly advocating their client’s cause. In the final analysis, it takes a lawyer to understand just how important a lawyer can be.

As lawyers, we also understand that some degree of heat and friction will often be a by-product of the legal process. Every lawyer must from time to time take difficult or unpopular stands. Lawyers representing the poor and disadvantaged are no different, and, if anything, are more likely to handle cases that give rise to controversy. It is easy for someone outside the legal system to criticize such lawyers for being agitators, when in fact they represent our profession at its best. Supporting public interest practice demonstrates our appreciation of the virtues of zealous advocacy.

As lawyers, we also understand the importance of public belief in the fairness of the justice system. In the final analysis, the legitimacy of our courts depends upon the faith of average citizens that justice occurs there. The broader the degree of access there is to the justice system, through quality representation, the greater stake people will have to participate as jurors, witnesses and citizens to allow disputes to be fairly resolved. The late Pa. Supreme Court Justice Louis L. Manderino once remarked that through the court system, American society resolves many differences that would, in another culture, be resolved by violence. Supporting legal services makes the ideal of equal justice more than just a platitude. Finally, to the extent that the legal profession asks government and the public at large to fund representation for the poor, the question is fairly asked: What is the legal profession itself doing to support that goal? In a nutshell, the importance of equal access to justice is an issue that lawyers are uniquely able to appreciate and, for that reason, as we perform triage on the many demands upon our resources, only we can be counted upon to make support for legal services a priority.

One of the easiest ways in which to support the ideal of equal justice is through this year’s United Way campaign and its donor option. Contributors to United Way can designate the Bar Foundation as the preferred recipient of their contribution, by specifying Code 1578. You can also support most of our grantee agencies in the same way. This year, when you make charitable contributions, whether through United Way or on your own, please take time to think about our obligations as attorneys and the example we can set by making the cause of equal justice a priority in giving.

Gerald A. McHugh, a partner at Litvin, Blumberg, Matusow & Young, is president of the Philadelphia Bar Foundation.

Copyright 2002, Philadelphia Bar Association. Used with permission.