Access to Justice–Notes after Pro Bono Trip to New Orleans

(Chenying Tan, Research Assistant at Georgetown University Law Center)

During this year’s spring break, I had the pleasure of serving as a volunteer working full-time in New Orleans Pro Bono Project.  This trip not only reminded me of why I studied law in the first place, but more importantly, it reminded us lawyers that we must take our responsibility to promote access to justice.

I took great pride in my work on pro bono matters. Prior to coming to New Orleans, I studied family law in university, working on book theory, but to see the succession and divorce process first-hand in office was different and exciting.  Almost every day I went on many field trips, contacted and met with clients, listened to their stories, examined family relationships, and prepared for affidavits of small succession or judicial succession that bring a fair result for them. The work gave me great pleasure because I knew I was helping to reshape a broken family or making a positive difference in someone’s life and if without my help they would not have changed.

The spring break pro bono trip showed me the very humanity side of law.  Serving as a volunteer for one week is easy, but what was difficult was getting involved in pro bono work though one’s career as a lawyer, for it requires one to put social interest ahead of one’s personal interest. Admittedly, nowadays, it is hard to engage new attorneys in pro bono service when the world is full of fancy opportunities of working for high salaries.  Even in law firms, under the well recognized notion of chasing money, it is hard for fee earners to work passionately and tirelessly on pro bono cases while under law firms’ billing pressure.  Despite those facts, we are grateful to see that many law school graduates chose to help low-income individuals over serving in profitable business organizations.  I was deeply touched by personal stories of many staff attorneys who worked for a long time at New Orleans Pro Bono Projects and at Children’s Center.  Some of them had graduated from prominent law schools, and been admitted to several states’ bars, and now are back to the community they care about.  Rachael Piercy, the director of New Orleans Pro Bono Project said that:  “it is true we have a lousy payment, but this is what I love to do!”

In my home country China, there are not many opportunities to do such pro bono work.  The biggest challenge is that lawyers lack motivation to devote part of their time to legal aid service.  Actually, nonprofit organizations and associations in law schools play the majority role in Chinese legal aid area.  Thanks to them, people living in remote and under-developed places of China could learn basic legal principles gradually over these years. Due to legal restrictions, NGOs and students association cannot provide legal aid in litigation areas.  The 2013 amendment of Civil Procedure Law of China directs that without a license, one could not represent clients in court. Thereby, the society calls for more law firms and lawyers to take social responsibility and play an active role in filling the justice gap by providing pro bono service to some of society’s most vulnerable members, who could not afford to hire a licensed lawyer.  Sometimes we lawyers get lost in cases and forget that many of us chose to come to law school to help less fortunate people and to shape the environment.

The trip to New Orleans had commemorative meaning because this year marks the 10th year after Hurricane Katrina.  While houses can be rebuilt in a few months, it takes more time to rebuild the heart and soul of a community.  John Donne said, “no man is an island, entire of itself”.  We live, after all, in a world where people rely on each other.  The “bell” tolls for us, and for the world.


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