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Chinn: Moral Imperative or Moral Dilemma?

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iba-chinn-scottThere is an interwoven fabric of reasons why I love lawyers. We serve people and the community (even when we don’t get paid). We are among the best problem solvers in situations big and small. And we can be objective analyzers of duty, responsibility and social norms and values even when we are in our roles as advocates.

With those thoughts in mind, I have been considering for many months the work of lawyers in assisting other lawyers. For example, as I’ve written about in this column before, a task force of the bar headed by Kathleen Hart and Rebecca Geyer has been working on outreach to lawyers who may benefit from mentoring, networking and skills training in the brave new economic world for legal services. But beyond that, some lawyers around the country have become involved in organized efforts to assist lawyers, their families, law students and other members of the legal system in times of need.

As one powerful example, the Louisiana State Bar Association sponsors a program known as SOLACE (which stands for “Support of Lawyers/Legal Personnel - All Concern Encouraged”). Here is an excerpt from the program description from the LSBA’s website:

“The sole purpose of the program is to allow the legal community to reach out in meaningful and compassionate ways to judges, lawyers, court personnel, paralegals, legal secretaries and their families who experience deaths or other catastrophic illnesses, sickness or injury. The way the program works is simple, but the effects can be significant. Notify one of the Program Coordinators when you learn of a tragedy occurring to someone in your local legal community. Through working with you and close friends of the family, the coordinator will then determine what would be the most appropriate expression of support and concern. That can range from simply sending the family a card signed by local and state leaders to providing the family with meals, needed support, assistance with grocery shopping or child care, or other similar services.”

The program is remarkably simple. It is a listserv. All persons on the listserv get a very short email from the program administrator describing the opportunity to assist. Here’s an example of one email that I’ve paraphrased for the sake of brevity:

“Third year law student needs our assistance. Her mother was diagnosed with a rare type of lung cancer, and has run out of sick leave and been terminated from her job. She is unable to afford health insurance or to pay medical bills directly, which is preventing her from being treated at an established cancer care center that has expert knowledge about this rare form of cancer. This is not a request for funds–but does anyone know a program or service that would permit this woman to be provided care?”

The SOLACE program administrator in Louisiana is Jay Zainey, a federal district judge in New Orleans. He manages the email traffic himself. I have been on the listserv since I met Judge Zainey in New Orleans this past February. I have been able to observe and have come to admire the efficiency, zeal and apparent efficacy of his work on this program.

It turns out that seemingly miraculous things happen all the time because of emails being sent on the SOLACE listserv. Needy patients get seen by doctors they wouldn’t have otherwise seen; plane flights from central Africa bring very sick people home; legal assistance is rendered to families when a lawyer-provider falls ill or passes away. You name it, and it has probably been the subject of a SOLACE request, except raising funds, which SOLACE (smartly) does not do.

Lawyers are powerful and resourceful people. They can get things like this done. That’s the magic of the listserv. But I have been wondering whether there are certain moral dilemmas created–however unintentionally–by the listserv. Maybe not so much in the plane flight: if some rich person or company loses one additional business meeting by using the plane to fly a sick person to safety, there’s no reason to get hung up about that. But what if the patient that gets seen that wouldn’t have otherwise, takes the place of another uninsured patient on the bubble–one whose friends and family members are not part of a powerful network of lawyers. Should I/you/we worry about that? Maybe it doesn’t happen that way. And if that, or similar things, are in fact natural consequences of such a program, does the good that is done outweigh the problem? Should we be self-conscious that the program only applies to members of the legal community and their families? Or does that make sense–that various interest and demographic groups are in best position to efficiency and effectively help their peers?

As for the IndyBar, we have the HEAL committee. HEAL stands for Helping Enrich Attorneys’ Lives. It is not a SOLACE program. Mainly, HEAL reaches out to those in need in a quiet and ad hoc way. Ellen Townsend is chairing the committee and working on the question of whether it should become something more. Should that something more be a SOLACE program sponsored by the IndyBar? Is it a moral imperative that we powerful people continue to find ways like this to help our brothers and sisters in the legal community? Or does it cause you a twinge of concern? Let me know your thoughts. Thanks.•

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