UPDATE | By Harry M. Reasoner, Chair
National Pro Bono Week is just one week in which attorneys and community members on both national and local levels come together to focus on the need for civil legal services and celebrate the great work attorneys are already doing to help meet that need. If ever someone was to question whether attorneys still possess a spirit of pro bono, one needs to look no further than the overwhelming outpour of attorney volunteers in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Over 2,300 lawyers in Texas and around the nation demonstrated their commitment to helping others as they offered their services, including staffing shifts at shelters and fielding questions through the online portal, Texas Legal Answers.
The pictures seen in the media are moving, often heart wrenching – homes completely ravaged by wind, rain and flood waters; debris piled stories high across numerous Texas counties. Incredible work has been done already by a brigade of people spanning all sectors reconstructing what was lost for millions of victims derailed by this disaster. Thousands of our Texas neighbors are just now sifting through what, if anything, remains, and realizing exactly what legal help they need. I am proud to be part of a profession that so resoundingly responded to the call for help.
The immediate shock of the disaster is gone, but the need for legal assistance remains palpable. Times of crisis bring to the forefront the need so many have for access to legal help. The reality is that when a crisis is no longer in the limelight, there can be a tendency to forget the crisis happened or that a need exists.
More than 5 million Texans qualify for legal aid, but limited resources make it possible to meet only about 10 percent of the need. Attorney involvement in pro bono will always be a critical component in striving to meet that need. Civil legal aid programs and financial resources to sustain them will also be essential. However, given the enormity of the problem, we must also continue to identify and create ways low-income Texans - who cannot obtain civil legal aid or cannot afford an attorney - can still access the court to remedy their civil legal issues.
Creating policies and procedures, rules and legislation will make access to the courts more efficient while helping a larger number of low-income Texans. Significant advances have been made and more are on the horizon. With collaboration and support from the legislature, Texas Supreme Court, and our ATJ partners, a low-income person can now pass her home, car, and bank account to a beneficiary without going through probate court, which often costs more than the assets were worth. Supreme Court task force members have already begun creating a packet of forms necessary for evictions. The creation of probate forms, which consist of four different will forms, are now in the final drafting stages. For people who cannot afford an attorney and must represent themselves, they will soon be able to navigate the system more effectively with the creation of legal forms and online resources.
As National Pro Bono Week comes to a close, don’t let the celebration end at the weekend. Instead, let’s keep a tenacious spirit of helping others in the forefront of our minds, continue doing pro bono, and strive to keep the doors of the courthouse open to everyone, not just to those who can afford it.
Harry M. Reasoner is the chair of the Texas Access to Justice Commission and a partner at Vinson & Elkins in Houston, Texas. His principal area of practice is complex civil litigation, including antitrust and securities litigation. He is a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers, the International Academy of Trial Lawyers, the International Society of Barristers, and the American Bar Foundation.