June 13, 2024


The Legal System

It is Our Right, and Our Duty – Leading As Lawyers

It is Our Right, and Our Duty – Leading As Lawyers

“To Whom Much is Given, Much Will be Required” (Luke 12:48)

Jack H. (Nick) McCall

Retired Senior Attorney; Tennessee Valley Authority

Given the demands and high expectations that most lawyers and law students have to contend with, the thought of yet another demand, expectation, or duty is enough to make even the most hard-working and dedicated among us sometimes feel beleaguered.  That is a natural enough feeling; anyone who does not acknowledge that the list of expectations, obligations, and to-dos for the average lawyer can feel ponderous must have a very different practice or legal experience from the experiences of so many of us.

Still—yet—there are some things that lawyers, and only lawyers, are called forward to do; that only we have the training, expertise and acumen to do: not only for our paying clients and those who employ us, but for the betterment and maintenance of society. As lawyers, as officers of the courts, as those tasked with developing and upholding the rule of law, it falls on us to undertake certain roles and functions—regardless of the nature of our practices, the time we spend with non-pro bono client needs, or how much money we do or do not make.

Fortunately, we also have a very wide range of methods and tools that we can use to meet these needs and expectations. We can pick and choose, to a sizeable degree, how  we undertake them. And, maybe best of all, the needs are such that we can often find opportunities for leadership and personal growth—I am not talking about simply learning new areas of the law, although that can surely be a part of it—and, maybe, even some enjoyment as well.

I am, of course, speaking of  the need for lawyers to provide their services to ensure equal access to the law.  Be it through pro bono help to clients in need; service on bar associations’ committees devoted to equal access programs; working with non-profits that need legal help—there are numerous ways and opportunities for lawyers, law students and law professors to engage.  

One major common thread here is that, when it comes to community and pro bono needs requiring the application of legal skills and talents, in our society, well, folks, that is us: the lawyers.  This can be reduced even more simply to the question: If not us, then who?  Any doubts about that can be resolved in large part by turning to the preamble of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct:

[A]ll lawyers should devote professional time and resources and use civic influence to ensure equal access to our system of justice for all those who because of economic or social barriers cannot afford or secure adequate legal counsel.[1] 

I submit, this is about as clear a statement evincing our obligation as lawyers to lead the way when it comes to this role as we can expect to get, even if the word is a “should,” not a “must.” Not only does this formulation exist in Tennessee’s professional conduct rules; other states’ rules of professional conduct share this same general direction.

One can further turn to Chapter 6, especially Rule 6.1, of the Tennessee Rules of Professional Conduct for more guidance as to the broad range of ways in which we can achieve this end. While many lawyers do this through pro bono case representation—often, of those who meet Legal Service Corporation standards—Rule 6.1 makes it clear that is not the only way that lawyers can  rise to the occasion and meet this responsibility—and yes, Rule 6.1 uses that exact term, responsibility.  Although the number of hours recommended by Rule 6.1 is an aspirational fifty hours, that aspirational standard sits close by that heavy word, responsibility.  The tone of Comment 1 to Rule 6.1 also appears somewhat more than merely aspirational in its word choices:

Every lawyer, regardless of professional prominence or professional work load, has a responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay, and personal involvement in the problems of the disadvantaged can be one of the most rewarding experiences in the life of a lawyer.  [Emphasis added.]

Once one ponders Rule 6.1 and its accompanying comment, it may be difficult to come away with any impression other than that pro bono work is important to our profession and our courts.  These rules express the formal outlook of our courts towards why lawyers are the ones to pick up the torch and lead when it comes to the challenges of ensuring equal access under the law and supporting those groups and activities intended towards that goal.

But, what about those who may bluntly ask: why do this kind of work if it’s not all about money and if the rules do not absolutely require me to do it?  

Pro bono and equal access-related work is something that is intrinsically good to do. It gives wider perspectives and teaches broader legal (and life) skills from what many of us see and do on a daily basis. It can be a great antidote to cynicism. After five or six hours of helping a pro bono client in real need, one may come to realize that a lawyer’s life is not so bad at all. Plus, the intangible (psychological, reputational and spiritual) benefits for helping lighten the load of others less fortunate can also be enormous.

I also often have counseled that we need to honor these expectations not just because the rules say “Thou shalt” or “Thou ought,” but because it is also what we ought to do as committed, skilled, principled human beings.  I have also often opined that equal access and pro bono work may not ever fully obliterate the negative view of our profession held by many Americans. A  New Yorker cartoon from some years ago captured the cynical view held by some of our fellow citizens: one well-heeled lawyer smirkingly says to another as they leave a courthouse:  “Remember, it’s the money we make from the anti-bono that pays for all the pro bono.”

However, a little well-placed volunteer service may help at least influence the lives of a few. We can have the satisfaction of doing something beyond just doing our “day jobs.”  And—given the range of needs that exist, and the opportunities they present—even young lawyers and law students may find that they have an exceptionally good opportunity to rise to the occasion and become leaders in their local, state or federal equal access communities.

Last: in a time when the rule of law itself is under stark challenges; when we can look not only overseas, but in our own nation, to see legal processes and systems at risk of being broken, ignored or subverted—it will take lawyers to stand up and deliver on the promises of equal access to justice, of rule of law and by law, of  justice for all. Nobody else but our profession can truly do that.

If not us, then, who, indeed?