The Power of One, Part Two: Lawyer as Counselor

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(Note: this is the second post in a four-part series.)

How long, after your first law school class, was it that someone asked you for legal advice?  Better yet, how long, after you announced you planned to attend law school, was it that someone asked you for legal advice?

Legal education strives to enhance certain abilities in the “counseling” domain.  Listen closely.  View from multiple perspectives.  Probe for more facts.  Gather similar past scenarios and their outcomes.  Anticipate consequences of various actions.   Remain objective.  And of course, law school begins developing the skill differentiating lawyers from other counseling professionals: the ability to find, understand and apply the law.

Our education thus gears us to the community’s foremost request of the lawyer:  advice about the law.   Indeed, a good lawyer often seeks legal counsel himself, for two bright minds are usually better than one.  A good lawyer also knows her limits, and readily consults with others about subject matters outside her expertise.

Thus, while many perceive seeking legal counsel as a necessary evil, the ability to do so is an almost universally recognized good.    Lawyer jokes aside, our friends and family are delighted to have a lawyer in their midst.

Why?   Instinctively, we all desire justice.  We believe that laws help society achieve it, and will therefore help us as individuals do so.  Essential to a free society, is free and open access to the laws which regulate our conduct.  When counsel regarding the law’s operation lies beyond the reach of many, justice is compromised.  Justice Lewis Powell wrote that “Equal justice under the law is not just a caption on the façade of the Supreme Court building . . . It is fundamental that justice should be the same, in substance and availability, without regard to economic status.”

This week’s illumination of The Power of One centers around one lawyer’s dedication to make legal counsel more available, to more people, without regard to economic status.

Tanner Kilander, as a first-year MU law student in fall 1999, started looking for a clinical opportunity to help the underserved.  She and another law school classmate heard about an idea for a legal clinic that would pair students with attorneys.    A more senior law student had done research but hadn’t pursued it further; she handed Tanner a file and encouragingly remarked “I hope you can do something with this.”  Tanner and her classmate eventually found their way to the Association for Women Lawyers Pro Bono Committee.  Within a year, a core group consisting of Tanner, her classmate, and five women lawyers launched a legal clinic out of a church cafeteria in the heart of Milwaukee’s inner city, with zero budget and relying entirely on a few dedicated lawyer and student volunteers.   The clinic had, and maintains, two basic premises:  it serves everyone (no income criteria or lengthy screening process) and provides learning opportunities for students.

Less than 10 years after it started, the Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinic has moved and added three locations, serving clients in the courthouse, at veterans services, and in a predominantly Spanish-speaking neighborhood.  Over 200 attorneys and 150 students donated nearly a half a million dollars worth of time to serve 2,500 Milwaukee residents in the last year alone.   Clinic volunteers guide individuals through family law issues, landlord-tenant issues, unemployment concerns, small claims cases, immigration issues and myriad other challenges.   See MVLC Annual Report.

Throughout the majority of the clinic’s operation, Tanner donated her talents and time, often 15 or more hours per week, even as she developed her own legal practice and raised her family.   Did she create or maintain the clinic single-handedly?  Of course not.  Nor do I suggest that legal clinics are a panacea to the thorny problem of access to justice.   The lesson here is that one law student’s dogged, patient pursuit of the mere seed of an idea, coupled with commitment to inspire others to join the pursuit, ultimately resulted in legal help to thousands.

Yet we need not empower multitudes or pursue large-scale projects, to effect major change.  Sure, make those things happen, too.   But realize that the most important Power of One as Lawyer-Counselor lies in your interaction with every single person who seeks your legal advice, whether a paid client, a pro bono client, or your mother’s second cousin.    Harriet Beecher Stowe wisely observed that “Half the misery in the world comes of want of courage to speak and to hear the truth plainly and in a spirit of love.”  To this lawyer’s ear, that means half the misery of the world is eminently solvable!    We begin this work by endeavoring to counsel each person we serve with truth, clarity and kindness.

4 thoughts on “The Power of One, Part Two: Lawyer as Counselor”

  1. As a current law student, I find that the MVLC is a great learning experience that I thoroughly enjoy! I am thankful for Tanner’s idea because it has provided me with the opportunity to help others and learn at the same time!

  2. I’m reading this with President Obama’s special news conference on the budget playing in the background. With the nation facing “long term, medium term, and urgent” fiscal problems in the President’s words, this post could not be more timely, tying in the issue of how small efforts of individuals can impact the greater problem of equal access to justice. Entitlements may be severely cut, end completely, and cause serious crisis as a result for the less empowered in society, but the individual’s choices to give counsel “for lucre” or not will essentialliy boil down to the same self-analysis now as they have in the past.

    Bravo to all the students following in Tanner’s steps; learning from the MVLC experience now is likely developing roots for a lifelong practice in a satisfying law career. It is also good to know the post’s original author certainly walks the walk, donating freely and generously of her time and talent as the rule, not the exception.

  3. Thank you for the thoughtful post, Cathy. I especially like your inclusion of Justice Powell’s quote about equal justice. I think to realize that ideal, we all need to work to ensure that indigent persons have quality access to justice. I’m troubled by the congressional proposal to cut $75 million dollars from the Legal Services Corporation’s budget.

  4. The reason that great programs like the Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinic are so rare is that society, generally, does NOT value access to lawyers. Sure, we all want a lawyer in OUR corner. But lawyers are like nuclear weapons: It’s okay if we have them, but others shouldn’t. For example, how does society view the typical personal injury plaintiff? As greedy, of course. And the only person more despicable is his ambulance chasing lawyer. How does society view the typical criminal defendant? As a guilty person who, with the aid of his unethical lawyer, is trying to escape justice through loopholes and technicalities. The same could be said in other areas of law – bankruptcy and immigration come to mind. (And going back to criminal law, even our own high court has made it more difficult for the right of counsel to attach, even AFTER a person has been formally charged with a crime.) Until these underlying attitudes are changed (which won’t happen in just one generation), we will have to continue to rely on smart and dedicated lawyers like Tanner Kilander and Cathy Ritterbusch if we hope to have anything remotely close to equal access to lawyers and the law.

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