In his keynote address at the 29th Annual Edward V. Sparer Symposium, Peter Edelman, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, issued a stirring summons to law school graduates to choose careers in legal aid.
"Whether you do indigent defense on the criminal side or work with poor defendants on the civil side, whether you do it full-time or part-time at a firm, we need you," he said.
Edelman's speech addressed an oft-overlooked population: individuals who can't access the legal system because they are too poor or disenfranchised to hire a lawyer. Beyond expanding legal services, Edelman also urged lawyers to promote more progressive economic policies through impact litigation, noting that the U.S. poverty rate today is approximately the same as it was in the 1960s.
One of the most prominent public symposia in the country, the University of Pennsylvania Law School hosts the Sparer Symposium each year to commemorate the life and work of the late Edward V. Sparer, who was a Professor of Law and Social Policy at the Law School.
At this year's event, which was organized by the Toll Public Interest Scholars, lawyers and law professors discussed the current landscape of legal aid organizations and the biggest obstacles that still prevent so many people from accessing justice.
In the second panel of the day, which was chaired by Penn Law lecturer Yolanda Vazquez, one speaker described the "iceberg" of cases in the United States that never even get heard because the parties involved cannot hire legal representation.
"We're looking at the few who get into the system, and stopping there," said Jeanne Charn, a professor at Harvard Law School.
Charn also criticized law schools' "much-commented-on disposition of amorality," observing that students are encouraged not to "be taken in by the sympathetic story," but instead stay coldly focused on winning the case at hand.
Law students learn how to reason well by their second year, she pointed out, and should have more opportunities to gain practical lawyering experience and learn to "care about substantive justice, not just the process." At Harvard in the 1970s, for instance, Charn helped set up a poverty law clinic to which 3Ls could devote their entire year.
Laura Abel, deputy director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, called for controlled, randomized tests to evaluate the effectiveness of existing legal services programs, such as "lawyer for a day" initiatives where lawyers spend one day representing clients pro bono.
"We can't merely ensure that litigants leave courts feeling satisfied," she said. "We need to know that these programs are actually make the proceedings fairer."
Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, was the symposium's special guest. In a rousing speech at the end of the day, Perez informed the audience that many of the cases he sees at his current job feature pro bono counsel from large private firms. "That's the only way some of these cases would have been brought," he noted.
Perez urged law students to search their souls before deciding against a career in legal services. "Keep in mind, life is a team sport and this isn't a dress rehearsal," he said. "Too many lawyers don't follow their heart and gut."