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Celebrating pro bono attorneys

The American Bar Association declared Oct. 21 – 26, 2012 “National Pro Bono Week" throughout the United States. The week is designed to draw awareness to the overwhelming need for free legal services in our country and to celebrate the legal professionals who give of their time to provide these services.

In San Diego, we have a lot to celebrate. With the assistance of more than 400 volunteers each year, San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program Inc. (SDVLP) provides pro bono legal services to over 5,000 individuals who otherwise would not have access to a lawyer.

Our colleagues at several other civil legal services organizations in the county also provide free legal counsel and representation to low income, elderly, ill, homeless and other vulnerable San Diegans, often utilizing the assistance of volunteers to expand the reach of the organizations’ services.

The attorneys, law students, paralegals, legal assistants, and other legal professionals who volunteer their time and expertise deserve our thanks and praise. It is they who help keep alive the concept of access to justice for all.

Thousands of San Diegans in need find it impossible to retain a lawyer or navigate the legal system alone. Relying on the assistance of volunteer legal professionals is often the only option for many deserving San Diegans faced with critical situations involving their families, their homes, and their health and safety.

Pro bono lawyers provide a vital service to our entire community. By assuring that the legal system is accessible and works fairly for everyone, we all benefit.

The assistance provided to Brett, who is living with AIDS, is just one example of how pro bono attorneys make a difference and change lives. When Brett became seriously ill, his financial situation also deteriorated dramatically because he lost his job and his health insurance along with it.

Eventually bankruptcy was his only option.

He contacted SDVLP for help and was provided services through the organization’s HIV/AIDS Legal Services Project. With several locations throughout the county, including a weekly walk-in clinic in Hillcrest, the project is designed to address the unique legal needs of those with HIV/AIDS.

The HIV/AIDS Legal Services Project has been utilizing the expertise of pro bono attorneys for more than 25 years.

One such attorney is Gary Holt, the longest, continually serving SDVLP volunteer attorney in the organization’s 30-year history. Holt worked with Brett, handling his bankruptcy and assisting with his other related legal issues, as he has done for hundreds of other SDVLP clients over the years. It was for his unwavering commitment to providing extraordinary pro bono legal services to those most in need that Holt was recently named SDVLP’s Volunteer Attorney of the Year.

Working in a profession that is far too often maligned and misunderstood, pro bono attorneys truly prove that legal professionals are in fact compassionate and committed, willing to use their considerable skills, at no cost, to assist the most vulnerable among us. And if asked, they will say that it is they who get more out of volunteering than they give.

During Pro Bono Week, many communities are planning special events to draw attention to the need for free legal services and to those who provide it. In San Diego, there are organizations and legal professionals carrying out this mission every day of the year.

If you know an attorney, law student, paralegal or legal assistant who donates their expertise by providing pro bono legal assistance, be sure to thank them this week … and throughout the year.

In no small way they all contribute to the betterment of San Diego through their ongoing commitment to selflessly serve.

Fitzpatrick is the executive director of San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program Inc. For more information about SDVLP, including the multiple services offered and volunteer opportunities, visit sdvlp.org.

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