THE FEDERALLY FUNDED program of legal services for the poor has been cut dramatically in the last year. Here in Washington, this has meant that three major programs were hit hard: Neighborhood Legal Services lost $456,000; the Antioch School of Law clinical program was cut by $177,000, and funding for Legal Counsel for the Elderly was reduced by $75,000. But this is a city where lawyers have had a tradition of donating legal services and money to civil rights and public interest groups. Last year, almost $800,000 and tens of thousands of hours of legal time were freely given to such groups by local attorneys. In this tradition, a Committee on Providing Legal Services was organized by John W. Douglas and Erwin N. Griswold to respond specifically to the cuts affecting the poor. An article in a current D.C. Bar publication by attorney Ann Macrory reports both good news and bad news about that response.
On the plus side, some of the best-known law firms in the city, most of which already provide substantial pro bono services to the community, agreed to do more. The committee had suggested that firms could accept more cases, donate money or the full-time services of attorneys for three to six months, share computers and libraries, establish a relationship with a neighborhood law firm or provide instruction at law school clinical programs. Thirty-eight firms and seven individuals have accepted one or more of these challenges. Voluntary dues contributions from members of the bar will add needed funds -- $185,000 went to legal services programs last year -- and more than $288,000 has been contributed by firms, all of which will be used toward replacing funds cut by the federal government. This is an impressive and generous response, but, unfortunately, it is not enough.
The Douglas-Griswold committee has contacted 342 law firms in the city, and so far all the contributions have come from only 38 firms. Not all of them are large. One 10-member firm raised $10,000; other sizable partnerships have given nothing. The burden should be spread more widely. The leaders of the bar have acknowledged the responsibility of the profession to provide service to the poor. Without federal funding, that task falls to volunteers. Every one of the 25,000 members of the D.C. Bar who lives in the metropolitan area can contribute something -- if not time and expertise, then money and resources. A good start has been made. A stronger response is needed.