The client hired us to fight a charge of hit and run she was facing, and then she promptly lost her job and couldn’t afford her legal bill. She was absolutely innocent of the charge, and we could prove it at trial. It would have been easy to withdraw from her case; after all, lawyers expect to be paid reasonable compensation for services rendered. A criminal case, no matter the charge, is complex and involves many considerations. But we stayed on and fought.
Many lawyers have faced this dilemma – do I stay and fight for a noble cause free of charge, or do I withdraw and only work upon proper payment?
Lawyering for free – pro bono – is lawyering done not solely for the client’s benefit, but also for the public good. It’s a very important part of the practice of law. Lawyers are stewards of knowledge and instruments of power. And we all swear an oath to uphold the constitution and conduct ourselves ethically. But every lawyer also swears an oath to fight for those most in need of justice. The final provision of the lawyer’s oath here in Washington says that a lawyer must “never reject, from any consideration personal to [the lawyer herself], the cause of the defenseless or oppressed, or delay unjustly the cause of any person.” Read it for yourself here.
These are powerful words, and there are powerful ideas behind them. I remember taking my oath many years ago. It was administered to me by Justice Richard Sanders of the Washington Supreme Court (retired). He was a passionate defender of the oppressed, and has long been an inspiration for my practice. I remember the feeling I had saying the oath in front of him. How much justice could I achieve in my community? I felt full of idealism then. I still do today.
But in the real world, the opportunities for pro bono work aren’t always so clear. In our client’s case, she had paid a nominal initial fee before running out of cash. I had already invested a lot of work in the case up front, so I didn’t automatically agree to work for free. But the more I reflected on her case, I realized that I just couldn’t bear to see my client, an innocent woman, walk out of my office door and essentially be set adrift into the system.
I had the power to do something about this. The case should never have been charged in the first place. The police performed an incredibly sloppy investigation. The “accident” had occurred at a fast food restaurant with surveillance cameras all over the building. The police decided they didn’t want to obtain the footage. By the time our office was hired, the restaurant had erased the footage.
We had proof that the damage claimed to have been fresh from this incident actually had occurred years before. The police had reason to believe the damage had already been there too, but they simply took the word of the complaining witness over our client. There was a racial component to the case as well, as our client was black and all others concerned where white. If racism didn’t play a part in the actions of those involved, why did the police perform such an incompetent investigation? The reason given at trial was that the police simply didn’t have the resources to obtain the video footage. We sliced that excuse into shreds by forcing the police to admit that they had been to this restaurant many times before, and had on some occasions obtained video footage from them. And of course, the police went out to the restaurant immediately after the incident had occurred- they could have easily secured the footage then, but didn’t.
All of this translated to an intense amount of stress and anxiety for our client, an innocent woman wrongly accused, with seemingly no one there to listen to her. Without a strong advocate, she may have been wrongly convicted by the system. The potential injustice was staggering.
The jury returned a verdict of not guilty after a two day trial. We spoke to a juror after the verdict, who told us how appalled the jury was by the (in)actions of the police in the case. Justice was done in this case, and in the end it made no difference whether the client was rich or poor. That’s the way it always should be. While it made me happy to see the pure joy of my client after the verdict was announced, I also hold a lot of concern for those people all around us that have fallen through the cracks. How many people were convicted who were actually innocent?
Lawyers of all stripes, but especially criminal defense lawyers, should consider taking on more pro bono cases. Our world needs more powerful people to fight for those who cannot defend themselves. I am proud to uphold my oath to fight for the oppressed and the defenseless.