Editor’s note: As we look forward to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and other opportunities to serve, an NCBA member reflects on why service matters.
An undergraduate degree. Three years of law school. The bar exam. Debt, stress, hard work, and strains on our personal lives. We’ve sacrificed a lot and dedicated ourselves to earn the privilege of practicing law. Our pens are more than ink and plastic, our signatures more than markings. We have the trust of society to rewrite the lives of those around us. Our entire profession, in fact, is dependent on society’s trust based on our education, licensing, and code of professional conduct. Our pens, set to paper to draft a motion or sign a pleading, transform into tools of the law, and it’s a transformation that is exclusive to us.
For some of society, access to the courts through us and our pens is just a matter of writing a check or taking out a personal loan. But for many people living in poverty or on the brink, access to the legal system is a foreign luxury. Compared to food, rent, and healthcare, the smallest aspects of the law which ought to be available to everyone are out of reach. Consider a tenant unable to contest terrible living conditions, a parent struggling to keep custody of their children, or a debtor so destitute they can’t pay to file for bankruptcy. Every day basic legal needs go unmet, and our neighbors continue to struggle outside of the legal system, marginalized by poverty.
We are the only people who can help. Working for a public service organization, for a government agency, for a firm, or for ourselves running a practice month to month, there are no others. Attorneys are a tiny portion of society, and attorneys dedicated to public service are an even smaller portion. There are no others who can do what we can do with these pens, motions, and pleadings. We depend on society for our elevated place, and we should answer through service.
That service requires more than just our time. It requires our experience, education, and what we had to sacrifice to get here. Without any pay or material benefits, engaging in public service in our capacity as attorneys is no short order – and that’s what makes it so fulfilling as well. You don’t do it because it’s your job. You don’t do it because you need to bill a client for your firm. You don’t do it because you need to be able to pay your office rent at the end of the month.
You do it because there’s no one else to help. You do it because we have a system made for everyone but only accessible by a few. You do it because without the pay, without the incentives, it’s the only truly voluntary form of practicing that we have. Know that one hour of your life can help rewrite months, and even years, of someone else’s, and there’s no one else to do it. Together we can change lives, and bring the law to the people.
Learn about the many North Carolina Bar Association’s many opportunities for service and pro bono here: http://www.ncbar.org/giving/volunteer-now/