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Just Waiting for Bread

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

  • State Bar of Georgia Pro Bono Project

Note: Pro Bono Net is partnering with Martindale-Hubbell Connected to promote pro bono April 16-30. Below is the third of a series of guest blog posts on Pro Bono Net's Connected group, contributed by Michael Monahan, Pro Bono Director at the State Bar of Georgia Pro Bono Project.  Join Connected to read the rest of the series in coming days, and register for a webinar April 22 on "Pro Bono & Your Career."


I pause and clear my throat. Another caller, another awkward conversation to be had- one already formed and well-rehearsed, yet always stilted, always sad and energy-sapping.

My telephone rings frequently throughout the business day. I have caller ID. Series of numbers flash across the small LCD screen as the day progresses, yet it’s the same caller, always a similar plea.

I listen intently to each person. As usual, the caller has already spoken to legal aid or the neighborhood pro bono program. Now, she dials me up. I try to sum up the facts and repeat them back, not so much to understand (because I do), but to bide time while my brain processes some- no, any—resource that I can provide to her. My office is a last resort for people with civil legal problems, people who can’t afford a lawyer.

I don’t have volunteer lawyers for the callers. I don’t provide advice. My work involves developing and supporting the community of pro bono providers, especially in rural areas of this state, all 159 counties in the largest state east of the Mississippi. I recruit volunteers for independent programs. I build web resources for the public and for advocates. I help local voluntary bar associations launch special pro bono programs.

I clear my throat again. I provide explanations to her. I try to validate her fears and concerns. If there are “magic words” to be formed that might open the door to the legal aid office, I work with her to form those loaded phrases and sentences. I explain that legal aid and pro bono programs are like legal emergency rooms, and that the programs can handle only the most critical legal needs. Silence. I’m sure she is still on the line and I continue. “There are long lines for legal help.” I know she’s thinking, “My problem is important. Are you saying my problem isn’t important?”

They used to tell me I was building a dream, with peace and glory ahead,
Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread?

- "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime," lyrics by Yip Harburg, music by Jay Gorney (1931)

She has a name. I wrote it down in my call log. I wonder who else shares that name. A young child or two? An elderly father? Who else on the other end of that telephone line, in that house or trailer or apartment, is hearing half of a conversation? Occasionally, I hear on the line a baby crying.

I recall many names, many voices. I hear myself sometimes in their stories. I recall as a child using rubber bands to hold up my old, lifeless socks under my navy blue parochial school uniform pants. And eating dry cornflakes as meals for a few days before my father’s payday.

They’re just waiting for bread. I understand.

So, we stay on the line. Sometimes, the caller just needs basic legal information or a form. I can help with information and forms. Often, they need to know how to talk with a lawyer about a reduced fee.

For some callers, I make it a point to intervene on their behalf with the local legal aid or pro bono program.

So many times, they need a brief lesson on how the justice system works. They already know how it doesn’t work for them.

Can you work for them?

Volunteer for your local legal aid or pro bono program today. They’re waiting for bread – and you.


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Volunteer Profile

Kate Powers is an associate in the litigation department at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP. She holds a J.D. from Cornell Law School where she served as a Notes Editor of the Cornell International Law Journal. She currently volunteers with Her Justice in New York. Read More

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