Judge David Tatel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit made an impassioned plea yesterday for law firms to take more responsibility for the welfare of civil legal services groups, lamenting the small percentage of the legal industry's billion-dollar revenues that go to financially-strapped providers.
Tatel spoke at an event honoring 36 law firms that contributed $3.6 million last year to local civil legal services through the D.C. Access to Justice Commission's second annual Raising the Bar in D.C. Campaign. Firms were honored based on the percentage of annual D.C. office revenues donated to legal services; the number of participating firms in 2012 was up from the 23 that participated in 2011.
Tatel praised the private bar's efforts to assist their colleagues in civil legal services, but warned the challenges facing individuals who can't afford a lawyer "is only getting worse." In the District of Columbia, for instance, he noted that more than 90 percent of litigants are unrepresented in certain types of civil cases.
If the 12 Washington-based firms featured as top earners in this year's Am Law 100 contributed one-quarter of a percent of their annual revenue – they earned $7.5 billion last year – Tatel said it would double the capacity of local legal services organizations.
"Until the legal profession as a whole accepts responsibility for ensuring all people need legal help can actually get a lawyer, I fear we will never make significant progress toward that goal," he said. Besides giving money, Tatel encouraged firms to do more pro bono work and advocate on behalf of greater public funding for legal services.
Mayor Vincent Gray (D), who also attended yesterday's event, hosted at Jones Day, said in his remarks he was committed to supporting public funds for legal services. His proposed budget for fiscal year 2014 includes $3.6 million in funding for legal services providers; that funding is administered through the D.C. Bar Foundation.
Individuals who can't afford a lawyer sometimes "believe the legal system is stacked against them," Gray said. The city's access to justice program "has been able to help bridge that gap.”
Peter Edelman, chair of the Access to Justice Commission and a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, said in his remarks he was pleased with the increased participation, especially among small and mid-sized firms.
Since launching the initiative in 2011 and setting revenue-based benchmarks for giving, participating law firms have increased their annual giving to civil legal services over the past two years by more than $800,000, according to the commission.
Firms were honored at three levels, depending on how much of their annual revenue they gave. Firms at the "platinum" level, which gave .11 percent of their revenue, included Benach Ragland; Buckley Sandler; Delaney McKinney; Gilbert; Jones Day; Kirkland & Ellis; Klein Hornig; Law Offices of Andrea Ferster; Law Offices of Gary N. Horlick; Law Office of Virginia Kling; Lippman Semsker & Salb; Mayber Brown; McKenna Long & Aldridge; Morrison & Foerster Foundation; Orr Immigration Law Firm; RDH Law; Relman, Dane & Colfax; Sutherland Asbill & Brennan; Zuckerman Spaeder; and Zuckert Scoutt & Rasenberger.
Firms at the "gold" level, which gave .09 percent of their annual revenue, included Arnold & Porter; Bryan Cave; Covington & Burling; Crowell & Moring; DLA Piper; and Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr.
Firms at the "silver" level, which gave .075 percent of their annual revenue, included Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld; Arent Fox; Beveridge & Diamond; Epstein Becker & Green; Jenner & Block; McDermott Will & Emery; Miller & Chevalier; Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman; Sidley Austin; and Steptoe & Johnson.
National Law Journal photos by Zoe Tillman.