Listening Post #19:Lawyers as Rescue Workers: A Pro Bono Week Reflection

Listening Post #19:Lawyers as Rescue Workers: A Pro Bono Week Reflection

It’s National Pro Bono Week here in the US, and I signed a pledge to post a pro bono blog. After a blog-writing hiatus of 7 months, it’s a good excuse to end the fast and get the blog rolling again. Ironically, it is the second pro bono story in this posting that at least partially has caused me to have an extended episode of blog-seize; I haven’t felt much like writing anything since Barbara was injured and died, but more on that later.

First, I would like to tell a phenomenal pro bono success story. My friend Joe co-stars with his client Leon, his accomplice in a miracle of mutuality: the giving and receiving of life-saving, life-giving pro bono legal assistance. Lawyer as Rescue Worker. The comparison struck me a few weeks ago as the 33 trapped Chilean miners were lifted up, one by one, through a veritable symphony of human effort: engineers, scientists, nutritionists, mental health professionals, all working as One to save these precious lives. It was a shared moment of joy for the species, this successful pooling of resources, humans at their very best, using their collective talents to preserve, cherish and celebrate Life. It got me thinking about other kinds of rescue workers, individuals who take it upon themselves to rescue those of us who are lost, trapped, vulnerable, marginalized. It got me thinking about lawyers like Joe.

Sixteen years ago, Joe volunteered to staff a monthly pro bono clinic through Philadelphia’s Homeless Advocacy Project (HAP). One Wednesday at noon, he found himself face to face with a homeless man, Leon, who had wandered into the clinic at a nearby center city church.  Leon told Joe that he had been sleeping under a bridge for nine months, ever since he and nine other residents were forcibly evicted…overnight… from their SRO.[i] Their landlord wanted to rehab the building to take advantage of gentrification in the area, so he dumped his low-income tenants onto the street.  Not knowing that this was illegal and having no knowledge of any available help, Leon moved under the struts. At this point in the interview, Joe pulled out an intake form and offered to explore what he could do for Leon. Leon respectfully demurred, but asked Joe if he would come back to see him ‘next week.’

Joe is a persistent man with a great heart; he went back the next week. And the next. And the one after that. For ten straight weeks, Joe met with Leon for half hour conversations. Each time, Leon tentatively asked Joe to “come back next week.’ During the tenth conversation, Leon interrupted Joe and said “OK, you can help me.”

Today Joe says, “Helping Leon is one of the best things I have ever done in my life.” It was clearly one of the best things in Leon’s life as well. Over a number of years, Joe represented Leon in obtaining a medical card, applying for and winning disability (SSDI) benefits, qualifying for and moving into safe, permanent housing. Before a representative payee could be found, Joe assumed that role for Leon. When Leon eventually died, Joe made sure Leon got the Catholic funeral and the Veteran’s burial that he had wanted.

Joe saved a life, and Leon gave Joe’s meaning. When we take the long view of our lives and our work, it doesn’t get any better than that. That’s justice: right relationship.

But now, to the terrible-outcome pro bono story.

I’ve gone over and over this in my head, and have concluded that it is indeed fair to say that Barbara died of Foreclosure. There were other punches in her life, but it was the loss of her home of 40 years that knocked her down for the count.

Two years before she retired from her secretarial job, Barbara was told that she qualified for a home equity loan badly needed for roofing and plumbing repairs on the weathered Philadelphia row home she inherited when her mother died four decades earlier. She made her payments regularly on the $10K loan until a year after her retirement; a fixed income and the sudden ballooning of the loan quickly resulted in arrearages. When she was $800 behind in her payments, foreclosure proceedings were begun.

Frantic, she went to two separate lawyers in her neighborhood. Both told her she would need to provide them with a $1500 retainer before they would represent her. Barbara would smile ironically when recounting this story: “Now if I had $1500, would I have been in that mess in the first place?” She was unaware of free legal help through legal services, but it would not have helped her had she known. At the time of her foreclosure, the local legal aid office, overwhelmed by the flood of foreclosure cases that heralded the Foreclosure crisis, had closed intake for these cases. Barbara, like over 50% of those who apply for free legal help, would have been denied assistance.

It was a rapid descent into some circle of hell from then on. Over the next few years, Barbara lived in a succession of SRO’s, ramshackle, cramped dumps which, she would say, were “unsavory for a lady.” When I met her in 2007, she had begun to drink heavily, her health deteriorated, and she slid into a deep depression. On the day before Thanksgiving last year, she was seriously injured when struck by a car. There is a very good chance that she stepped in front of it. After several months of tortured existence in a sub-standard nursing home, Barbara died last May. Her former neighbor and best friend Patty confirms:  "It was losing the house that did it,” she says.

Barbara needed a Joe; she needed a good lawyer with a good heart, but there were none to be had. Even the most optimistic projections indicate that at best, 15% of the legal needs of low income people are being met. Every day, our sisters and brothers lose their homes, their incomes, and even their children for want of a lawyer to advocate for their basic human needs and rights. We in the legal profession are the gatekeepers to justice; we have a lawful monopoly. Access comes through us or not at all. For justice to come, every lawyer must be a pro bono lawyer. If the statistics are accurate, we’ve only gotten four or five of the ‘miners’ into the light of legal assistance. It’s time to think hard about how we are going to reach the other 28.

National Pro Bono Week gives us an opportunity to pause and reflect on the harsh realities of our current system, and to work to change it. This is a hopeful week, good things are happening: there are law students in Boston canvassing low-income neighborhoods, educating homeowners about  foreclosure and their rights. Hundreds of Advice and Counsel clinics are taking place all over the country this week, lawyers throwing some light down that mine shaft and reaching in to pull people out. I urge all of us, colleagues in the legal profession, to begin to think of ourselves at least in part as Rescue Workers, people whose skills and talents are indispensable in the work of creating a safe and just world, of ensuring that each of our precious lives is advocated for, preserved, and in some cases, literally saved.

So be a good Joe. Do Good. Do Justice. Do Pro Bono.

For more information, visit

[i] Single room occupancy housing

Leave a Comment:

Interested in starting your own volunteer listening program? We offer training for volunteers and train the trainer services.
-Arundhati Roy

Help support the development of JUST Listening programming and volunteer projects that bring the practice of deep, relationship-based listening into prison and marginalized communities for personal and social transformation.