I have heard my share of lawyer jokes over the years. They are some of my favorite jokes. We get our share of public criticism, too. While some of this may be deserved, the clear majority of criticism is misplaced.
The legal profession is in the service industry. We serve our clients, counsel them, and protect them from harm. Many lawyers also provide a unique service called pro bono representation.
The word pro bono publico is a Latin term that means “for the public good”; usually shortened to pro bono. Lawyers throughout Georgia provide pro bono services for professional work undertaken voluntarily and without payment or at a reduced fee as a public service.
The State Bar of Georgia does not require its members to provide pro bono services. However, it is strongly recommended. The Bar also provides services, through its members, to our veterans, elderly, and others who face legal challenges without adequate financial means to hire a lawyer.
There are thousands of Georgians who cannot afford a lawyer. This is particularly true in most civil cases where a litigant does not have the right to a court-appointed lawyer. Many people face divorce, landlord/tenant disputes, and other civil lawsuits on their own. Oftentimes, in domestic-relations cases, there is an attorney on the other side.
While some judges will give litigants without an attorney a little leeway, not having professional representation is almost always at a terrible disadvantage. Non-lawyers do not know the rules of evidence, available defenses, or the proper way to defend or pursue a case. On rare occasions, I have seen some good legal work done by folks without a lawyer.
Based on a desire to serve others, many of my friends who are civil attorneys donate countless hours representing poor people in civil lawsuits for no fee at all. This pro bono service results in fairer divorce hearings and more equitable judgments in other civil lawsuits. I salute my civil law colleagues for their service.
Pro bono service is also performed in criminal cases. While the U.S. Supreme Court has held that indigent defendants in criminal cases have a right to an attorney, many private criminal lawyers across the state provide free legal representation or representation at a significantly reduced fee.
A good example of this is the work of “conflict attorneys” in criminal cases. Many criminal prosecutions involve the arrest and indictment of multiple co-defendants. Under most circumstances, there would be a conflict of interest for one attorney to represent all the defendants in a criminal case. So, the state must ask private criminal-defense attorneys to serve as conflict attorneys on a case-by-case basis. These attorneys are paid. However, the fee is always much less than the attorney would normally charge a client on the case.
I served as a conflict attorney for several years. While I no longer handle conflict cases, I still enjoy providing pro bono service to clients in certain circumstances.
The other benefit of pro bono work directly impacts the lawyer performing the service. Christ taught us to be givers. He did this for a very important reason. Givers are much more likely to trust in God, remain humble, and develop the type of personal relationship with Him that makes our lives whole.
I am very proud that my profession has so many honorable and generous members in Georgia. Our pro bono work is one of the most important cornerstones that hold that honor in place.
For more information about how lawyers serve, please visit www.gabar.org .
(Jason Swindle is a criminal-defense attorney and college professor in Carrollton.)