Pro Bono PARTnership Luncheon Highlights Role of Attorney Volunteers

By Tracy Schorn

October 27, 2017

D.C. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Blackburne-Rigsby

“Every day [in our courts], the percentage of citizens who go without legal representation in critical situations is staggering,” said D.C. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigsby during her opening remarks at the annual Pro Bono Partnership (PART) Luncheon on October 25, hosted by Sidley Austin LLP. Filling the access to justice gap is “important, transformative work,” Blackburne-Rigsby said to the pro bono volunteers and legal services providers in the audience. “What you do is vital.”

PART is a network of more than 100 local law firms and federal agencies committed to providing pro bono legal services in the District. The D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center maintains a dedicated PART listserv and hosts quarterly luncheons to facilitate communication among members, highlight emerging pro bono needs, help members exchange ideas about pro bono management practices, and strengthen connections to D.C. legal services providers. The Center also publishes a directory of PART law firms to facilitate pro bono referrals.

The chief judge praised the Pro Bono Center as a “model that’s looked to,” and appealed to lawyers to encourage their colleagues toward pro bono service. “Ninety percent of all tenants in landlord–tenant cases in the District are unrepresented,” said Blackburne-Rigsby, pointing out that individuals in family and probate court are also largely unrepresented.

The courts are working to “fill the justice gap,” Blackburne-Rigsby said, with several new initiatives such as their redesigned website, appellate mediation, and plans for a mobile app that would ensure “greater access for the unrepresented.”

“No one can do everything, but everyone can do something,” the chief judge said.

D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center Executive Director Rebecca Troth introduced the luncheon keynote speaker, corporate governance expert and film critic Nell Minow, who gave a lively, humor-filled talk about accountability. Minow began with a timely example of poor corporate governance—Miramax Films and Harvey Weinstein.

“What were they thinking?” Minow said of Weinstein’s reported employment contracts that absolved him from responsibility for sexual harassment charges so long as he personally paid the legal bills.

This was a “monumental mistake” by their board, said Minow. Corporate failures all “boil down to governance.” When you “enable and abet” bad actors, you “guarantee bad results,” Minow added.

But who has the courage to challenge those in authority? Minow spoke about how mistakes happen when problems aren’t given full attention, people are not honest with themselves, and there is a lack of accountability.

“Your job is to ask the tough questions and encourage others to do that too,” said Minow.