The Soul of a Hero

A Speech Delivered at the VSB Special Committee on Access to Legal Services Legal Aid and Oliver White Hill Awards Luncheon on June 17, 2016

by George T. “Buck” Lewis III

My father served on the U.S.S. Lexington. His squadron flew more missions off the Lex than any other squadron in World War II. He loved to tell the story about how when they finally got back to port after the Battle of Leyte Gulf, he went with two Virginia boys to see the chaplain. The idea was that the chaplain would certify that they were ready to go back to civilian life. When these three boys met with the chaplain, the Virginia boy from Blacksburg said, "Chaplain, I can't wait to get home but I do have one sin to confess. I am a happily married man but, after the Battle of Luzon, we got to a friendly island and I had a fling with one of the islanders. I feel terrible about it but I feel much better now that I've had an opportunity to confess it." The second Virginia boy said, "Chaplain, I'm also dying to get home. But, I too have something to confess. I used to sneak into the Squadron 17's barracks late at night and take their cigarettes. A few days later, I would sell them to the boys in Squadron 19. And, I feel terrible about my sin, too, but I feel so much better now that I've confessed." After a long silence, my father said, "Chaplain, before I enlisted, my sin was the sin of gossip and I just can't wait to get out of here." I know that bar luncheon speakers sometimes leave people feeling like my father did when he met with the chaplain. So, I'll be brief no matter how long it takes.

You know, Virginia and Tennessee have an awful lot in common. We share the Appalachian Trail and the Blue Ridge Parkway. You have a basketball player named Darrius Thompson you got from us. We got football players named Kelly Washington and Charlie Garner from you. We share the City of Bristol. And, after September 10 of this year, we will share the record for the most people ever to attend a college football game.

But, we also share a problem. We both have a huge justice gap, and both of our Supreme Courts have created the Access to Justice Commissions to try to narrow the gap. Before our Tennessee Supreme Court created our commission in 2009, each member of our Court went on the road to communities large and small all across our state. One of the things that they heard over and over was that, even in communities where there were pro bono resources, low-income clients could rarely access them. Maybe there was a bar association clinic on a Saturday, but people had to work on Saturday. Maybe there was a lawyer in a neighboring town who did pro bono work, but those in need were too old and infirm to drive. Maybe there were only two lawyers in the entire judicial district, and those lawyers were covered up with criminal appointment cases. Over and over, our Court heard about this problem of our inability to connect existing resources to the need. Of course, the need will probably always be greater than the resources, but how frustrating to know that there are resources in place which cannot be accessed because of the barriers of time and space.

Our Court challenged us to try and solve that problem with technology. We tried to keep the solution simple. We all get legal questions by e-mail from our clients every day, and we all answer them every day from our mobile devices. Heck, since I've been sitting in this luncheon, I've watched some of you give legal advice between the salad and the main course. So, we created a website called "Online TN Justice" which was designed to simulate a limited scope walk-in clinic such as all of us have been to at a library or a courthouse. Low income clients post questions and lawyers log on and answer them. As of last month, our website and our Tennessee lawyers have answered over 12,000 legal questions for people who could never afford a lawyer.

Of course, closing the justice gap requires collaboration. We offered this program to other states, and a half dozen have taken us up on it over the past five years. But, in May of last year, the ABA Pro Bono & Public Service Committee decided to take our model nationwide. We have spent the last year talking to states like Virginia about how this has worked in Tennessee and other states. And, we now have forty states that have signed up. The map on your table is not a map of all of the states where a third-party presidential candidate would win. This is a map of the states that have signed up to be part of our program. You see that we have almost every state. And, there are a few we are still talking to. The development of the software program will be free to the states, a gift from our firm's technology team. Just last month, Microsoft donated the use of the Microsoft Azure platform nationally. The One Million in malpractice coverage will be free to the volunteer lawyers and to the states which participate. The salary and benefits of the national website administrator will be free to the states which participate. This is made possible by the generosity of our fifteen sponsors. States like Virginia will need to recruit volunteer lawyers, find a staff person who can spend a few hours a week serving as our state contact, and promote the use of the website. That's it. We know this works because we have been doing it for five years. We are so proud to have Virginia participating. I may not sleep all of the way through the night between now and our launch in August. But, what an exciting day it will be when most of our country adds on-line pro bono to its access to its justice toolkit. Now, we know that there are situations where nothing but full-scope representation will do. But, we also know that this resource can be a Godsend to clients who simply have no place else to turn. We also know that lawyers love doing pro bono in their pajamas.

Why is it that pro bono work is so important to the lawyers who do it? Why do lawyers derive so much joy from pro bono work?

Well, some lawyers have decided that they don't want billable hours to be their only legacy. In 2002, my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer. She had surgery in September. And, two months later, I was diagnosed with colon cancer as well. That winter, we had a long talk about what we thought was worthy and not so worthy of our time. It turns out that I would remain cancer free at least fourteen more years, but she had only twenty more months to live. But on that morning, neither of us had any idea how much time that we had left. She was one of the smartest women I've ever known. But, because my grandfather was a house painter, she had no opportunity to go to college. The most worthy thing -- the thing which she was the gladdest that she had spent her precious time on -- was to teach, to teach ballet and modern dance to young women, and of course, to teach them about life along the way. This long conversation with mom left me a little heartsick because I realized that I had wasted so much of my time. I did realize, however, that one of the most significant things that I had done was to volunteer at a pro bono clinic for HIV-positive clients in the heart of downtown Memphis. So, I believe some of us do this work because we find it worthy of our precious time, however much time that may be, and we want it to be part of our legacy.

Other lawyers help those less fortunate because it is the way we were raised. There is an exercise that we do in the leadership class at the U.T. College of Law to teach students about privilege. We seat them alphabetically. Then, we give them a piece of paper and we tell them to wad it up. We put a trash can at the front of the room, and we tell them, "If you can get your piece of paper in this trash can from your seat in the classroom, we'll give you tickets for the Tennessee/Florida game." Of course, the students who happen to sit in the front of the room think that is a pretty great deal. They easily get their paper into the trash can. The students half way back in the room are a bit more frustrated. Some of them are able to get their paper in the can, and some are not. The students in the back cry "foul" because, through no fault of their own, it is a long shot that they will get any tickets. My mom and her parents had seats in the back of the room. When my grandfather was sick or the weather was bad, he earned no money. He had no health insurance. They lived off of my grandmother's modest Welfare Department clerk's salary and the generosity of my mother's uncle who had a grocery store and gave them the unbought produce and meat out of the back door on Saturday afternoons. I was raised to understand that most poor people work harder than most rich people. I was raised to understand that there are lots of extremely smart and charismatic poor people. I was raised to understand that it is our responsibility to take care of each other because sometimes all a family needs is a little help to get over a rough patch. So, some lawyers do pro bono because it is the way they were raised.

Some lawyers do pro bono because they're proud to be a lawyer. Most of us have never looked at the Preamble of our rules of professional conduct. But, the Preamble is another thing that Virginia and Tennessee share. Both of our states' Preambles say that a lawyer is a "public citizen, responsible for the administration of justice and the quality of service rendered by the profession." Both of our preambles say that "a lawyer should be mindful of the fact that the poor and sometimes persons who are not poor, cannot afford adequate legal assistance." Lawyers, therefore, should "devote professional time and civic influence" to the cause. When we are sworn in as lawyers, we are all too happy to agree to abide by the rules of professional conduct, and to fight for the core values of our profession. But, too many of us get lost in a sea of deadlines and mortgage payments, fancy cars and tuition costs. We forget about being a public citizen with the obligation to devote professional time and civic influence on behalf of those who cannot afford legal assistance. But, many lawyers certainly do pro bono because we want to carry out the highest ideals of our profession.

You won't hear it said out loud very often, but for many lawyers, pro bono is a matter of their faith traditions. Every faith tradition places an importance upon justice.

  • Exodus 23:6, "You shall not deny justice to the poor in their lawsuits."
  • Deuteronomy 16:20, "Follow justice and justice alone."
  • Psalm 106:3, "Blessed are they that maintain justice, who constantly do what is right."
  • Psalm 140:12, "I know that the Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy."
  • The Torah: "Justice, justice shall you pursue."
  • The Quran: "Behold, God enjoys justice and good actions and generosity to our fellows." "Never let hatred lead us into deviating from justice."

These lawyers believe God doesn't call the enabled, God enables the called. So, they respond to the call for legal help with the battle cry from the book of Isaiah "Send me!"  

Two years ago, the Frist Foundation funded a legal needs assessment in our state. It found that the average number of legal problems experienced by low income households is 2.2 legal problems per year. Interestingly enough though, it also found that if these families can get help when their first legal problem arises, the second and third ones are less likely to ever occur. That's because inadequate access to healthcare leads to employment problems which lead to landlord/tenant problems. Employment problems lead to landlord/tenant problems which lead to healthcare problems. Family law issues lead to debtor/creditor problems which lead to housing problems.

Who are these people with 2.2 legal problems per year? They are our brothers and sisters. Like my grandfather, they paint our houses, fix our roofs, and clean our gutters. Like my mother, they teach our children. They work in the hotels where we stay. They serve us our food at luncheons just like this one. And some of them struggle to make ends meet between their first and second or second and third tours of duty. Most of them are smart, not dull. Most of them are hardworking, not lazy. It's just that when privilege was given out, they were sitting at the back of the room. Will it be our legacy to look the other way and work only with others of education and privilege, or will it be our legacy to listen to our brother and sister, and help them solve their most significant problems.

Tennessee and Virginia share another thing. They both have lots of heroes. For example, we had Sergeant Alvin York, who won the Medal of Honor for his bravery in World War I. You had Desmond Doss of Lynchburg who showed courage as a conscientious objector -- serving as a medic and pulling scores of men to safety in World War II, never carrying a weapon.

 They had the soul of a hero.

We had Cordell Hull who won the Nobel Prize for his work on behalf of the United Nations. You had Matthew LaPort, a 20-year old sophomore at Virginia Tech who barricaded a door against a shooter's attack, rushed the gunman when he broke through the door, and gave his life to save his classmates.

They had the soul of a hero.

We have Dolly Parton who founded Imagination Library, sending 60 million free books to children since 1995. You had Maggie Walker -- born to a slave in 1864 -- who fought her whole life for the rights of women and minorities, and paved the way for generations of women and minority entrepreneurs to come.

They had the soul of a hero.

Lawyers who do pro bono are my heroes. We have Virginia heroes with us today.

We are honored to have with us Lt. Kaylee Gum. Kaylee has provided legal assistance to hundreds of veterans and active-duty personnel in Virginia and in Iraq. Kaylee inspires others at her veteran's benefits clinic, in the JAG Corp., in the Veteran's Law Society, and in the Iraq Access to Justice Project -- to name a few.         

Kaylee Gum, ladies and gentlemen, has the soul of a hero.

And, then there's Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, director of the Legal Aid Justice Center's Immigrant Advocacy Center. Simon is the quintessential servant leader, creating the Virginia Special Immigrant Juvenile Project, fighting for tenant's rights, and the rights of unrepresented children.

Simon, ladies and gentlemen, has the soul of a hero.

Five hundred and fifty miles from here on a hill in Tennessee stands a bronze statue of a Torchbearer. Inscribed on the base of that statue are the words, "One that beareth the torch shadows oneself to give light to others." Kaylee shadows herself to give light to others. Simon shadows himself to give light to others. The 500 volunteers who answer questions pro bono on our website in Tennessee shadow themselves to give light to others, just as volunteers from Virginia and forty other states will do this Fall. Most of you in this room shadow yourselves to give light to others. In so doing, you are carrying out a tradition in this great Commonwealth of Virginia that is over 200 years old. And, our great and noble profession will continue to do so 200 years from today, and 200 years after that, because the soul of a hero never dies.

 George T. Lewis III is a shareholder in the Memphis office of Baker Donelson in Tennessee, and chairs the firm’s Appellate Practice Litigation Group. He also is chair of the Technology Committee of the ABA Pro Bono and Public Service Committee. He is leading the ABA’s national effort to create Freelegalanswers pro bono websites in all fifty states.

Updated: Jun 27, 2016