As the World Churns - Tumultuous Times for Pro Bono in the United States

by Paul S. Lee- Pro Bono Partner, Steptoe & Johnson LLP
Monday, 6 February 2023 09:22 GMT

Since 2020, our lives have felt like one dramatic twist and turn after another.  We are still enduring a global pandemic that will forever change the way we live, work, and sneeze on planes.  We experienced a racial justice reckoning that forced us to re-evaluate the deeply engrained systems that have perpetuated inequity for centuries. We uncovered deep political divisions that manifested policies and laws that will have long-lasting impacts on the lives of millions—but especially those living in marginalised communities. The world - and the United States in particular - has been going through a constant state of whiplash. And it is tiring.

There has been a corollary level of churn within the legal industry that has changed the nature of private sector pro bono initiatives. In the spring of 2021 alone, more than 30 million Americans changed jobs, spurred on by shifting economics, remote work options, and a general motivation to reassess career paths. Thousands of law firm attorneys switched companies, moved to a different sector, or left the legal profession altogether. As we know from experience, it is neither efficient nor client-centric to manage a pro bono programme when there is widespread transition within the volunteer base.

Despite these challenges, the U.S. legal community continued to show up for our pro bono clients. As pandemic safety nets that had kept communities afloat began to retract, law firm attorneys, alongside our legal services partners, stepped up to help individuals and families preserve their primary sources of income. Pro bono attorneys represented tenants who were abruptly served eviction notices upon the lifting of moratoria. Volunteers stepped back into courtrooms to help families navigate domestic relations proceedings that had been frozen for years. At every turn, our pro bono programmes were there to help our neighbours in need re-emerge from the pandemic. 

Globally, turmoil reached new levels as migrants fled conflicts besieging countries such as Afghanistan, Ukraine and Venezuela. Many of these refugees found their way to U.S. soil, and pro bono attorneys were not afraid to take on complex asylum cases and applications for temporary protected status. As the U.S. immigration system began to resume processing thousands of claims that were stuck in limbo, volunteers returned to immigration courts and asylum offices to advocate for stability and peace during times of war.

As the racial justice protests and marches ignited by the summer of 2020 died down and the news headlines began to fade, the long-term work of attacking systemic inequities within our justice system began in earnest. Law firms pushed forward important pieces of impact litigation that demanded improvements in policing standards, educational equity, language access, and rooting out discrimination within public housing and employment programs. We know that systemic injustice took centuries to burrow into place across the U.S., and it will take many more years to tear it out - but pro bono attorneys will be there for the fight.

Finally, as we look ahead to the year to come, new challenges to women’s reproductive freedom, LGBTQ+ protections, and disability rights loom large on the horizon following unprecedented decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court.  All of these battles will take enormous resources to wage, which, while law firm pro bono programmes are well positioned to handle, cannot divert our attention from the vital community-based representation that we are duty-bound to uphold.  As constant churn unearths new societal quagmires, pro bono attorneys will be here, ready to respond.

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