Lawyers uniquely positioned to serve low-income Texans

LISA M. TATUM

Guest Columnist

A woman arrived at the pro bono legal clinic in a desperate state and suffering from severe disabilities. Thanks to the work of attorneys at LyondellBasell, a Houston-based plastics, chemical and refining company, she is getting the legal help she needs. The attorneys, led by chief legal officer Craig Glidden and pro bono coordinator Monica Karuturi, are helping her set up a special-needs trust to manage her disability benefits.

“It’s one of those unique opportunities that we as corporate lawyers have to contribute to the community’s overall prosperity,” Karuturi said. “Our work is very matter-specific on a day-to-day basis, and pro bono work gives us a way to contribute to broader social issues and interact with people who really need our help. It also grounds us and gives us a sense of what’s really important.”

Lawyers across Texas could share similar stories of making a difference in the lives of people who could not afford legal services. The National Pro Bono Celebration, happening Oct. 20-26, is about acknowledging the value and importance of this work and encouraging more attorneys to get involved.

The American Bar Association started the celebration in 2009, after the recession left more people in need of pro bono legal services. The goal is to recognize lawyers’ good work while recruiting more volunteers, mobilizing community support, and fostering collaborative relationships. The celebration is nationwide, with a focus on local projects.

The State Bar of Texas encourages Texas attorneys to provide at least 50 hours of pro bono legal services each year, and hundreds of attorneys regularly exceed that goal. Still, while nearly 6 million Texans qualify for legal aid, the state’s legal community meets only 20 percent of the need, according to a 2009 Legal Services Corporation study. As attorneys who care about access to justice, we can and should do more.

As president of the State Bar, I am pleased to announce the Care Campaign, a new program designed to further empower Texas attorneys to provide pro bono services. Through the Care Campaign, attorneys can find practical training tools, interpreters for clients with limited English-language abilities, and access to malpractice insurance through a specialized network. The program includes a Care Kit—a box containing all of the resources that local bar associations and legal organizations need to easily hold a legal advice clinic in your community.

Texas attorneys also continue making a difference through programs that serve U.S. military veterans who cannot afford or lack access to legal services. One such program, the State Bar’s Texas Lawyers for Texas Veterans, develops and assists pro bono legal clinics throughout the state.

“Anyone who needs pro bono work, by definition, is unable to afford legal assistance, but the ones I find the most significant and inspiring are people who have the quietest voice and the greatest need,” said Shauna Wright, partner and pro bono coordinator at the Fort Worth law firm of Kelly Hart & Hallman, LLP, which regularly sponsors veterans clinics and also represents families adopting orphans. “We have kids in the community who have been failed by people over and over and over, and the world has let them down. So it’s a powerful thing for us to help their new parents give them a forever home and a permanent family. It’s truly humbling to be a part of it.”

Marc Vockell’s extensive pro bono work includes helping victims of domestic violence navigate family law cases. “You want to make a difference, and you want to help your clients improve their lives,” said Vockell, the head of intellectual property litigation at Dell Inc. in Round Rock who served on the Texas Access to Justice Commission from 2009 to 2012. “I’ve had clients who were very pleased to get on with their lives and clients who tell me I’m their guardian angel. But I think I get more out of it than my clients because I get to practice law in a way that is very personally fulfilling and rewarding.”

Other opportunities to volunteer abound. Attorneys interested in connecting with legal aid providers and pro bono organizations in their communities can find them and other pro bono resources at texasbar.com/atj. If you need an attorney and cannot afford to pay for one, you can contact the State Bar for a referral to a low-cost civil legal service agency in your area by calling (800) 204-2222, ext. 1855.

As attorneys, it is our privilege to be the ones who can help people in this essential way. “A lot of us serve on nonprofit boards or maybe volunteer at a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter, and those are good things to do,” said Wright, the Fort Worth attorney. “But pro bono legal work can only be done by lawyers. We are uniquely qualified to do it.”

 

Lisa M. Tatum is president of the State Bar of Texas and the founder and owner of LM Tatum, PLLC, in San Antonio with a practice that focuses on corporate, education, employment, and public finance law. She may be reached by email at statebarpresident@texasbar.com.