Michael Monahan, Pro Bono Director at the State Bar of Georgia Pro Bono Project, contributed the following article to Pro Bono Net's blog on Martindale Connected in April as part of a series of guest posts about pro bono. You can read the other posts in the Pro Bono Net Community on Connected.
In May, Michael was awarded the 2010 Tanya Neiman Pro Bono Professional of the Year Award from the National Association of Pro Bono Professionals (NAPBPro). The award is given to pro bono professionals who demonstrate a steadfast commitment to pro bono and have achieved outstanding results. It’s named after Tanya Neiman, the former Director of the Volunteer Legal Services Program at the Bar Association of San Francisco for nearly 25 years and a founding board member of Pro Bono Net.
Just Waiting for Bread
By Michael Monahan
I pause and clear my throat. Another caller, another awkward conversation to be had - one already formed and well-rehearsed, yet always stilted, always sad and energy-sapping.
My telephone rings frequently throughout the business day. I have caller ID. Series of numbers flash across the small LCD screen as the day progresses, yet it’s the same caller, always a similar plea.
I listen intently to each person. As usual, the caller has already spoken to legal aid or the neighborhood pro bono program. Now, she dials me up. I try to sum up the facts and repeat them back, not so much to understand (because I do), but to bide time while my brain processes some - no, any - resource that I can provide to her. My office is a last resort for people with civil legal problems, people who can’t afford a lawyer.
I don’t have volunteer lawyers for the callers. I don’t provide advice. My work involves developing and supporting the community of pro bono providers, especially in rural areas of this state, all 159 counties in the largest state east of the Mississippi. I recruit volunteers for independent programs. I build web resources for the public and for advocates. I help local voluntary bar associations launch special pro bono programs.
I clear my throat again. I provide explanations to her. I try to validate her fears and concerns. If there are “magic words” to be formed that might open the door to the legal aid office, I work with her to form those loaded phrases and sentences. I explain that legal aid and pro bono programs are like legal emergency rooms, and that the programs can handle only the most critical legal needs. Silence. I’m sure she is still on the line and I continue. “There are long lines for legal help.” I know she’s thinking, “My problem is important. Are you saying my problem isn’t important?”
They used to tell me I was building a dream, with peace and glory ahead,
Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread?
- "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime," lyrics by Yip Harburg, music by Jay Gorney (1931)
She has a name. I wrote it down in my call log. I wonder who else shares that name. A young child or two? An elderly father? Who else on the other end of that telephone line, in that house or trailer or apartment, is hearing half of a conversation? Occasionally, I hear on the line a baby crying.
I recall many names, many voices. I hear myself sometimes in their stories. I recall as a child using rubber bands to hold up my old, lifeless socks under my navy blue parochial school uniform pants. And eating dry cornflakes as meals for a few days before my father’s payday.
They’re just waiting for bread. I understand.
So, we stay on the line. Sometimes, the caller just needs basic legal information or a form. I can help with information and forms. Often, they need to know how to talk with a lawyer about a reduced fee.
For some callers, I make it a point to intervene on their behalf with the local legal aid or pro bono program.
So many times, they need a brief lesson on how the justice system works. They already know how it doesn’t work for them.
Can you work for them?
Volunteer for your local legal aid or pro bono program today. They’re waiting for bread – and you.