Amid rising calls for justice, fairness, and race equity in the broader community, law firms are reaching out to legal services providers to offer help.
Most ask how they can support protestors who have been arrested for civil disobedience because it is the most visible actionable step. While this work is meaningful, the impact doesn’t reach the deeply embedded systemic racism in our legal system.
The real call to action is for legal services providers and law firms to partner in ways that unearth and upend systems of oppression so that people of color, namely black people, have meaningful access to justice. Tangibly speaking, pro bono programs must be structured using a race equity and cross-cultural framework.
At New York Legal Assistance Group— where I am Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer and the Director of the Pro Bono and Volunteer Unit—we provide free civil legal services to clients who are, primarily, people experiencing poverty and people of color. Our existing infrastructure allows us to engage pro bono attorneys and provide training, resources, and supervision to assist them in representing clients facing a civil legal crisis.
Yet, as we are witnessing racial tensions heightened by the continuing murders of black people at the hands of law enforcement while in the midst of a pandemic that has claimed a disproportionate number of black and brown lives, we have an opportunity to examine our existing processes to be responsive to the times in which we are living.
Specifically, the dehumanization of black lives squarely intersects with themes in civil legal justice around poverty, access to justice, and representation in the legal system.
Pro Bono Attorneys Are Largely White; Cross-Cultural Training is Absolute Necessity
So, what happens in pro bono legal representation if we marry the existing pro bono infrastructure with a cross-cultural framework?
Historically, pro bono attorneys are largely white, and training has focused on substantive law and procedure. Understanding the difference between our clients’ lived experiences and that of our pro bono attorneys, cross-cultural training is an absolute necessity. It allows pro bono attorneys to get proximate to the traumatization, oppression, systemic inequities, and root causes faced by people experiencing poverty and people of color.
Cross-cultural training arms pro bono attorneys with the knowledge, tools, resources, and language to take action within their sphere of influence. Pro bono attorneys are charged with managing client interaction and relationships, gathering facts and evidence, engaging effective motions practice, brief writing, oral argument, and legislative advocacy. It is vital that they view the case in a historical and holistic manner.
Consider a family court example. A Black single mother of five children who attend different schools is charged with education neglect because one child is repeatedly late to school. During the proceedings, opposing counsel requests a drug test of the mother while referencing the court record which includes descriptions of her and her children’s appearance (i.e. the children wear locs and braided hairstyles) and manner of speaking, references to NYCHA housing, and assertions of dangerousness and drug activity in the area.
For me, as a Black woman who grew up in poverty, the racism is obvious. But would it be obvious to an attorney from a different background or one who has not been exposed to similar stereotypes, assumptions, and microaggressions?
A pro bono attorney who has received cross-cultural training, including components of trauma informed lawyering, implicit bias and debiasing strategies, as well cultural humility and competence, will more likely challenge the underlying racism presented by opposing counsel’s request for drug testing.
In preparation for the legal proceedings, the pro bono attorney, through a cross-cultural lens, would have interactions with the client to fully understand all of the issues at play, visit the client’s home, interview witnesses, gather facts regarding the attendance of the client’s children as well as the location of their schools, and explore other necessary evidence. They would learn as much as they can about the client as a whole person that could be useful in the representation.
This type of advocacy will undoubtedly strengthen the attorney client relationship, build rapport and trust, provide better outcomes and experiences for the client, and assure the client that their lawyer will not only see their humanity, but will call out injustice when and where they see it.
Our clients feel the effect of the heightened scrutiny in their lives, and they need a strong advocate that will challenge the status quo. When attorneys approach advocacy through this lens, we do more to build a client’s trust in the legal system that has been eroded for generations.
Law firms are valued members of our pro bono programs, helping to expand capacity and shrink the justice gap in ways legal services providers simply cannot achieve alone.
The tremendous impact of the time, resources, and financial support donated by our law firm partners cannot be overstated. By ensuring pro bono programs structured through a race equity and cross-cultural framework, we can challenge systems and strategies upon which we have come to rely.
Communities of color, plagued by deep systemic inequities, are depending on us to act now. Let’s seize this opportunity.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Caprice R. Jenerson is NYLAG’s first chief equity and inclusion officer. She is the key strategist and catalyst for NYLAG’s diversity, equity, and inclusion work, collaborating with internal and external stakeholders to implement best practices that foster an engaging and inclusive workplace and brings culturally sensitive free, civil legal representation to the community. She is co-chair of the Public Interest Pro Bono Association (PIPBA), an association of pro bono professionals at nonprofit and public interest law organizations in the New York City metropolitan area and serves as a member of the New York State Attorney Emeritus Program Advisory Council.