Friday, October 31, 2008

Well-Meaning Pro Bono Programs ...

... are indeed well meant. Let's not deny that.

I signed up for the WSBA's Pro Bono and Legal Aid Committee (PBLAC) so I could be a contributor, not a complainer. Yesterday (Thursday Oct 30, 2008) was its new member orientation, followed by a regular meeting.

They are all well-meaning people, and I wish things went better. We met for two-and-a-half hours and did not mention a single measurable, meaningful target to be met within a defined time. That is to say, I saw no real plan. There *is* a huge plan; we had at least five pounds of dead-tree handouts in a 3-inch-wide binder. It defines a process that provides some helpful activities, no doubt, but by its very bulk and obscurity doesn't solve the problem of access to justice.
It's as if Boeing were to say, "We need a better jetliner. We've been making lots of progress toward it: we've made some parts, we had a rollout event, et cetera. But a date for it actually flying? Hey, look at that shiney thing over there!"
This problem is not unique to the law-and-justice community.

However, if a private enterprise screws up, no-one should be crying except the shareholders, and they knew the risks. But charitable matters are different; people with limited choices rely on them to be effectual, and this makes it doubly wrong when they're not.

I'm familiar with PBLAC and its cousin, the Access To Justice Board, from over a decade of hanging around the Washington State Law-And-Justice Community. I've been struck with how carefully they tiptoe around actually stating the problem in measurable terms, defining a plan to solve it, and reporting on progress toward completely meeting the goals.

Instead, there are factoids ("X% of Washington's low income residents have such-and-such a need") but never facts ("a specific number of persons or cases have such-and-such a need"). Why this is, I can't say because the volunteers are uniformly well-meaning and the paid staff are nice people. It is entirely possible that, when you do the math in your head, there's just no way to solve the problem with the tools at hand:
  • One million Washington State residents unable to purchase the services of an attorney
  • If each has one problem every five years, that's 200,000 problems per year
  • 20,000 licensed attorneys in Washington State might conceivably address civil legal issues
  • Each takes 10 pro bono cases a year
  • Problem solved!
It ain't gonna happen folks. And if we get hit with a Depression, it's doubly not gonna happen, as lawyers drop out of the profession, take minimum wage jobs, and default on the law school loans.

Now you can play with the numbers to get a more happy or less happy result. The point is, PBLAC and ATJ and the rest of the community don't run the numbers. They provide a lot of data, but not the really distressing information. Instead, they publicize the amount of work they do:
  • X hours donated
  • Y clients helped
  • Z expressions of gratitude from a forelock-tugging peasantry
Any project that reports effort expended instead of progress achieved toward completion is about expending effort, not solving the problem.

If that last point (and the "forelock-tugging" bullet) seems a little cynical, it's because I'm really tired of the Lady Bountiful model of legal aid. I was raised poor. Without foodstamps, I wouldn't have teeth and without welfare I have close family members who would be dead. Charity is important, but empowerment is more important.

Certainly I'm going to put in a lot of work on this committee, but holy cow!

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