In recent weeks, I've noticed an accelerating trend: Increasing numbers of folks looking for a lawyer are boldly asking me if I will accept their case on a pro bono basis. I view it as a sign that despite claims to the contrrary, the economy is still a long way from healthy. The mass of those accused of crimes are not leading lives of quiet desperation: They are crying out for help in plain view.
One such request came in the weekend's mail. It was scrawled on the back of a postcard sent from one of the state's prisons. Gone was all pretense of an attorney-client privilege. Present was a naked plea for help, packaged in a hope that is almost certainly misplaced. i reprint the note mispellings and all:
"I am looking for a special public defender or Pro Bono legal services for my Hebeas Corpus claim.
"I have concrete solid Evidences proof my case for a corrupted state Attorney's And the trial judge.
"when we proof my case than civil suit againt state prosecutor's money to be made.
"Contact me me if you want my case. Thank you."
This is what hopes looks like from the other side tracks. This man has nothing. He believes he was abused by a prosecutor and a corrupt judge. He hopes for freedom and dreams of riches when the injustice he feels he has suffered is brought to the light of day. All I need to do is sign on and I can grow rich by investing my time and talent. Someday someone will have to explain to this man the broad immunities that both judges and prosecutors enjoy from suit. When the state errs, it refuses to pay. What pleases the prince, we learn to believe, has the force of law.
I put this card aside with a sigh as I settle in for the first full day of work in the New Year. I wonder whether there is merit to his claim. I will never know. I will write to him, but my firm, too, has been battered by the economy. I have little to give at this point.
I return phone calls that have come in over the weekend. One is from the mother of a young man recently charged with a serious crime. We spent hours discussing his prospects several weeks ago, and agreed upon a fee. This morning, the mother reports that they cannot raise the funds. Will I accept the case on a pro bono basis? Are there grants that her son can apply for to finance a lawyer? What can he do if he believes the public defender assigned to him neither understands the law nor believes in him? It was a long and depressing call, staring hope in the eye and saying no wearies. My heart is not made of stone, but my staff must be paid in something other than good will; so, too, my rent, and all the expenses associated with the operation of a small firm.
My staff does intake sheets reflecting calls of folks looking for counsel. I scan those for the past three or four days. Most folks report that have no funds. They are hoping we will represent them for free. Their cases may well have merit; they may well be wrongly accused. If we will but listen we will see the injustice.
Each of these calls and inquiries feels like another rock rolling back down the hill. Call me Sisyphus. People are hurting out there. The pain is real and evident. They retain the hope for justice in the courts. But the courthouse doors will remain closed to many seeking civil justice. The doors will be ajar to many relying upon harried and over-extended public defenders and legal aid lawyers. I wonder what will happen when their hopes collapse, and they see that justice is, if not a rich man's game, then at the very least a game only those relatively affluent can afford.
I spend far too much time saying no to those in search of counsel. Some might regard that as the privilege of a modest sort of success. I regard it as a sign that the legal system is failing. People in need of lawyers aren't able to find them. There is little money out there to pay legal fees, but yet the government continues to charge folks with crime, and corporations and those with money keep rolling over little people as though they were but bits of gravel on the highway to success. What will become of hope?