For the public good—and ours

by Jennifer Thompson

Have you ever cried in court? I have. And, no, it wasn’t because I was ill-prepared, scolded by a judge, or schooled by opposing counsel. It was in a moment of sitting with my client, deep inside the pain and struggle of their legal battle. It was while watching my client ache for change that they hoped the legal system could bring to fulfill needs so basic as access to safe housing, contact with family members, and mental health support. 

Have you ever had your heart truly, deeply broken with a client? Can you think of that moment right now, as you are reading this? Are your eyes welling up? That’s the kind of ache I am talking about. Some of us might have those experiences daily in our practices. Some, like me, do not. I love practicing construction law, but my construction law work has never been a source of deep emotion. Instead, my profoundest experiences with our legal system have been in the volunteer legal work I do for Children’s Law Center (CLC) in CHIPS proceedings. I have seen through the eyes of my clients what it is like to be scared, separated, lost, overwhelmed, and so incredibly vulnerable as to desperately need a lawyer. 

I have also learned lawyering skills from my pro bono service that nothing and no one else ever taught me. For instance, a CLC attorney encouraged me early on to think of at least one positive thing going on in my client’s life that I could share with the court at each hearing. I use this advice as a reflection to prepare for my CLC hearings, and it is equally applicable to my construction law practice. It’s amazing how thinking about the positive thing about your client that you want to impart to the court shapes your entire court appearance. I am a better lawyer for all of my clients because I follow advice I first learned in my pro bono work.

So why am I sharing so much about my pro bono experiences? MSBA presidents usually address the topic of pro bono each year in October because it is the month when we commemorate pro bono service week—and pro bono service is, as Past-President Dyan Ebert so poignantly put it a year ago, part of the social contract between lawyers and the public. I know that a lot of MSBA members do pro bono work. But many of us do not, and the numbers are trending in the wrong direction. 

In 2014, there were only 2,922 pro bono attorneys for Legal Services Advisory Committee (LSAC) grantee providers. By 2020, that number had dropped to 2,378 attorneys. This represents a decrease in pro bono attorneys of almost 20 percent. Even more staggering, there has been a 42 percent decrease in pro bono cases closed for LSAC grantees since a peak in 2014. Yes, it’s true that not all pro bono work is done through LSAC grantee providers, and some (maybe many) Minnesota attorneys provide pro bono service through other avenues. (CLC, for example, is one group that does not receive LSAC funds.)  Nonetheless, LSAC grantees are the legal service providers that most Minnesota attorneys think of when it comes to pro bono service—organizations such as Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, Volunteer Lawyers Network, Central Minnesota Legal Services, Legal Services of Northwest Minnesota, Legal Aid Service of Northeastern Minnesota, and Tubman. These providers are not experiencing a decrease in clients needing pro bono service. To the contrary, the need far surpasses the capacity of the available attorneys. With the significant decrease in attorneys providing pro bono service to LSAC grantees, as well as the decrease in the number of cases being closed, many needs are going unmet. 

There is no way around it: We need more lawyers doing pro bono work. In a survey of MSBA members conducted last year, the top two reasons attorneys provided for not performing pro bono work were lack of time and lack of subject matter knowledge. As to the former, let’s put a pin in that for now. No, I don’t have the magic solution to create more time for busy people, but I do have some thoughts on how busy people can help with access to justice. We will have more to say about that soon. 

As for subject matter knowledge, let me assure you that there is support and training for practicing in an area of law that might not be your first field. If a construction litigator can navigate CHIPS proceedings, I’m confident that you can find a pro bono practice that fits for you. In addition to fulfilling a professional duty, you may find yourself touched and moved in ways that fundamentally shape you both as a lawyer and as a person. And if I happen to see you teary-eyed in court someday, I will thank you for your service, for honoring your part of the social contract, and welcome you to the club. 

JENNIFER THOMPSON is a founding partner of the Edina construction law firm Thompson Tarasek Lee-O’Halloran PLLC. She has also served on the Minnesota Lawyer Mutual Insurance Company board of directors since 2019.