The International Language of Pro Bono – Samuel W. Seymour

Samuel W. Seymour

President’s Column, April 2011

In his opening remarks at the “Pro Bono and the Legal Profession: Access to Justice” conference in Santiago, Chile, earlier this month, Hon. George Daniels made an analogy that truly captures the critical nature of pro bono legal services. He said that there are two serious trips we take in life: one is to the hospital and the other is to court. We do not expect patients to treat, operate on or medicate themselves, but we expect pro se litigants to represent themselves.

The City Bar’s Vance Center for International Justice and the Fundacion Pro Bono Chile organized this international conference to provide a forum for the legal profession to develop strategies for advancing access to justice in the medium and long term. The conference brought together a remarkable array of law firms, solo practitioners, bar associations, corporate legal departments, law schools, social organizations, and pro bono institutions from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, the United States, and Venezuela. There were presentations on the critical importance of access to justice in a democratic society, reports on the progress made in the Americas in advancing pro bono over the past ten years, and working-group discussions of how the pro bono initiative in the Americas should move forward.

Along with other City Bar representatives, I was pleased to attend and honored to deliver a talk on “Advancing Access to Justice.” I outlined the “Pillars of the Profession’s Responsibility” in a democratic society, which include: 1) The ethical responsibility of lawyers to guarantee access to justice; 2) Laws and policies that address social needs; 3) A fair and equitable judicial system; and 4) Access to the legal system. My essential message was that the legal profession’s privileged role in the justice system gives it unique responsibilities and opportunities to advance access to justice for all of society.

A judicial system cannot be said to be fair and equitable unless everyone is given meaningful access to it. Statistics support Judge Daniels’ point about pro se representation. In the immigration area, for example, 18 percent of detained asylum seekers represented by counsel were granted asylum in 2005, while in the same year only three percent of unrepresented asylum seekers were granted asylum. Studies of the outcomes of cases of represented versus unrepresented tenants in Housing Court show similar wide disparities.

Above all, what I took away from the Conference was a commitment by all participants to continue building the pro bono movement around the world, based on the consensus that pro bono is beneficial to society, leads to a more accessible court system, provides valuable training and experience to law students and young lawyers, makes for a more well-rounded lawyer, and is good for the soul.