By Hunter DeKoninck
Through daily concerns over billable hours and client meetings, networking events and continuing education, it is easy for those in the legal field to forget our responsibility to serve those in need in the communities where we live and work. The most downtrodden among us need legal advice and direction as much as anyone, and we have the capability to help the men and women most overlooked in our communities through pro bono work.
In July 2011, I was fortunate enough to spend several months traveling around Northern Uganda, supplementing the International Criminal Court’s efforts to indict a war criminal from the country’s 21-year civil war. I was tasked to travel the countryside, interviewing dozens of former child soldiers who were familiar with the criminal. As I sat alone with these young men, they shared story after story of complete despair and grief. Yet, somehow, in spite of their stories, the prevailing attribute among each of these young men was a profound sense of hope. A hope that tomorrow would be better. A hope that they could change their circumstances. A hope that the best is yet to come.
This past year I joined the Indiana bar and, with the support of my firm, I joined forces with a local men’s shelter in Indianapolis to establish a new pro bono legal clinic. Early on in the process, I had a long conversation with an older gentleman who told me that he, and many of his friends and acquaintances here in Indianapolis, feel “completely hopeless.” Hopeless? How, I thought, could someone here, in the United States, and in my neighborhood, feel less hope than those with whom I had met just four years ago? While I realize no city is immune to the challenges of poverty, my conversation with this man was eye opening about the extent of financial and legal challenges facing some of our most vulnerable citizens.
Many Americans live life without wealth and access to higher education and are unsure how to maneuver the complex systems and institutions that comprise modern society. Banks, governmental agencies and the courts hold immense authority over every citizen, and without adequate representation and sound advice, people like the gentleman I met at the legal clinic can face confusing and cumbersome obstacles. Everyone needs a little help sometimes, especially when it comes to understanding our legal system and all of its affiliated procedures, before they can navigate it on their own.
As attorneys, we can and should provide this service to those in our community who likely will not be able to afford our services. I have taken the same oath as countless others: “I will never reject, from any consideration personal to myself, the cause of the defenseless, the oppressed or those who cannot afford adequate legal assistance.” Though I’ve just begun what I hope will be a long legal career, I want to make sure I never forget that oath and put those words into action. Moreover, I want to make sure that the city I live in has people and organizations focused on instilling hope in its people.
Providing pro bono legal services to our fellow Hoosiers might feel intimidating, but we do not need to be experts in every area of the law to provide basic legal advice to those who might only need an educated set of eyes. Through simply listening to those who face struggles in our neighborhoods and offering common-sense advice, we have the opportunity to give someone hope for a better tomorrow.•
Hunter DeKoninck is an attorney with Quarles & Brady LLP in Indianapolis. The opinions expressed are those of the author.