The Atlanta Lawyer — March 2014
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President’s Message
Wade H. Watson III

The Times They Are A-Changin'

This month’s issue is devoted to pro bono March Madness, the atlanta bar association’s continuing legal education program that helps prepare lawyers for providing pro bono services to people who cannot afford attorneys. This program has been very successful and has helped atlanta legal aid and the atlanta Volunteer lawyers Foundation, as well as many law firms, in their efforts to provide legal services to the poor and marginally poor. It is good and right that we should do this. We all have an ethical duty as officers of the court to provide access to justice for all of atlanta’s citizens.

Yet i am struck by Georgia chief Justice hugh thompson’s recent report on the state of the Judiciary that he delivered to the Georgia legislature earlier this month. In it he said that the state of the Judiciary and Georgia’s legal system is good for those who can afford it, but an increasing number of Georgians cannot afford attorneys and therefore lack access to justice. Seventy percent of the state’s active lawyers practice in just five metro counties. Sixty-two of Georgia’s 159 counties have 10 or fewer lawyers and six counties have no lawyers at all. By necessity, lawyers locate where they can find paying clients. Atlanta is where the greatest share of the state’s population and wealth is located, and it is here that you find the most lawyers.

This concentration of lawyers in metro atlanta still is of little help to a growing percentage of the population who need legal services. While we have a barely functioning system for providing lawyers to those accused of crimes, we do not recognize a right to counsel in non-criminal matters. Government has its lawyers, big business has its lawyers, the wealthy have their lawyers, those seriously injured or damaged by the former three categories can often get lawyers on a contingency fee basis, but everyone else pretty much has to make do or to go without. Trial judges report the increasing number of civil cases that they have to try where either one or both parties have no lawyer. For the poor, the middle class, and even the upper middle class, legal services are either absolutely or mostly unaffordable.

As Marty ellin, our intrepid and tireless director of aVlf often points out, lack of access to an attorney has a direct adverse economic effect. People without lawyers are more likely to lose their property. They may slip from comfortable to struggling, or from struggling to abject poverty, when something goes wrong and they have no one to help them correct it. They suffer foreclosure, eviction, deportation, loss of employment, loss of child support, loss of visitation with children, and even loss of government services, and have to face the often bewildering bureaucracy of the judicial system alone.

Of course there is nothing new here. I have been hearing about this problem since i began practicing 32 years ago. Despite the heroic efforts of many lawyers to address access to justice, it is evident that what we are doing is not working very well for many if not most people. One of the fundamental problems i see is that we have been thinking too small and we have been a bit naïve. Is it really realistic to think that the 20,000 or so lawyers practicing in metro atlanta could have the capacity to give away enough time and services to supply the unmet legal needs of the six million people in metro atlanta, or of the ten million people now living in our state? Our collective experience and Justice thompson’s report answer that question. Based on the number of calls i get in my own office from people who cannot afford counsel, i believe i could spend all my time providing free services. That would be almost as hard as…as....wait for it…being a bar president--but that is a subject for another column.

How can we do better? Providing access to justice to me is the greatest challenge the legal profession faces. I suggest that in order to provide meaningful access for all our citizens we have to come up with a better way to finance basic legal services. Somehow the cost has to be spread out among more people either through some kind of insurance or taxation or some combination of both. At this point i expect some of you have recoiled in horror at my suggestion and have uttered the dreaded s word 1 as an expletive. Yet we cannot just sit back and let the current situation continue. If we do not devise a solution, someone or something will devise one for us. One need only look to our brethren in the medical profession to see that change is coming and what happens if the practitioners leave the solution in the hands of the bean counters and politicians. Universal access to justice, like access to health care, is rapidly coming to be regarded as a fundamental right of citizenship. Once a consensus on that idea forms, and it is forming rapidly, the status quo will yield.

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside
And it’s ragin'
It'll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'2.

so, what shall we do?


2bob Dylan