Letter From Leadership: Why We Must Always Take Sides

A letter from Executive Director Martin Ellin.

More often than I wish were true, people think of “pro bono legal services” as simply giving a poor person a free lawyer. But pro bono publico (usually shortened to pro bono) does not mean “free,” it means “for the public good.” And the benefit of the attorney-client pro bono relationship is both to the client who receives critical legal support he could not otherwise afford and to the lawyer who performs the service. Because Churchill was right: “We make a living by what we do, but we make a life by what we give.”

Going further with this thought, I think performing meaningful volunteer legal service forces lawyers to take sides. By “taking sides,” I do not mean arguing a client’s position for the purpose of the claim at hand; I mean responding to the injustice that is always made more plain to a lawyer when she stands with a client who is living in circumstances she would never allow.

And Elie Wiesel was right: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy,…what all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.”

At AVLF, we take sides, we sometimes interfere, we make sure that our clients know they are not alone and we speak for those whose voices are stifled. The quality of the justice we know depends on the quality of that known by our clients.

When it is released (soon!), I invite you to read our Annual Report for the full picture of the extraordinary work of the AVLF staff, and Atlanta’s private lawyers, that generated in 2016 more than $2½ million of free legal services to the poor of our community who have no other access to counsel. And 2017 is off even faster, based in part on the addition of a Staff Attorney and Navigator to the Safe Families Office, and a contemplated expansion of the SWON Program.

Achieving these outcomes required the AVLF staff to create meaningful pro bono opportunities for Atlanta’s lawyers, to recruit and when necessary to train those attorneys in the relevant substantive area, to respond to thousands of phone calls from would-be clients hoping to secure the services of the pro bono lawyers, to administratively match the lawyer and the client, and then to mentor and supervise the volunteer attorney when needed. AVLF’s 2016 staff of 15 spoke with more than 7,500 callers, recruited more than 450 lawyers, and connected them with more than 4,000 clients. We are very proud of the private lawyers who gave of their time and their talent to take sides against injustice, and we invite every lawyer who will stand with us to do so: their access to justice depends on us, and the quality of our judicial system depends on theirs.