Everyone hates lawyers. Until they need one, that is. Fortunately, most lawyers don’t take that personally. We’ll even join right in with our favorite lawyer joke. The legal system can seem like a foreign country to non-lawyers. Although the courts have made great strides in the past several years to help those who choose to represent themselves, there is no question that having competent counsel can make a huge difference.
Jokes aside, attorneys also help the system run more efficiently. They explain the issues, answer questions, and know the procedures within the courthouse. Self-represented individuals often ask those questions or require explanation of those procedures during court, while many others are waiting for their cases to be called. Neither judges nor court staff can give legal advice, so there are limits to the questions we can even answer. Most importantly, the key issue in a case is often a concept or source of law that only an attorney would recognize.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who cannot afford an attorney when they need one. There is no public defender system for most civil or family cases. To make matters worse, the organizations providing legal services to low-income people are struggling to stay afloat. There is one private attorney for every 365 potential paying clients, but only one legal-aid attorney for every 4,022 low-
income individuals. Legal-aid agencies turn away two eligible clients for every one they accept for representation. Statewide, legal-aid entities have laid off 75 full-time equivalent positions in the past five years.
Money for these organizations comes from a variety of sources, including federal grants, attorney trust accounts and registration fees, private donors, and some limited legislative appropriations.
Our local bar association long has made helping these organizations a top priority. But, overall, total funding is down
13 percent since 2008. The supply of low-cost legal services simply cannot meet the demand.
Volunteerism helps. All attorneys are supposed to devote some time to those who cannot afford to pay, and some go above and beyond. A few weeks ago I attended an event sponsored by the Volunteer Attorney Program in Duluth, which coordinates free legal services (or “pro bono” if you’re into Latin) from a roster of attorneys willing to take on a few extra clients. Individual attorneys and law firms were recognized for their significant contributions to these low-
income individuals, donating hundreds of hours of their time to assist those in our community with the greatest need.
I serve on a statewide committee to explore solutions for legal services to the disadvantaged. If you have a suggestion, drop me a line. And in the meantime, support and acknowledge the attorneys out there who work for these organizations or volunteer to take pro-bono cases.
We should all be very thankful that no one took Shakespeare’s advice on this one.
Dale Harris is a 6th Judicial District judge in the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth.