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O’Connor Urges Lawyers to Provide Free Help

August 12, 1991

ATLANTA (AP) _ U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor urged the nation’s lawyers Monday to provide free legal services to the millions of Americans who cannot afford such help.

″There’s probably never been a wider gulf between the need for legal services and the provision of those services,″ O’Connor told an American Bar Association convention audience.

″There is a great deal to be concerned about, or even ashamed of,″ she said.

Also Monday, the ABA’s policy-making House of Delegates convened to begin work on proposed resolutions that range from urging the Supreme Court to televise its proceedings to accepting the National Lesbian and Gay Law Association as an affiliated group.

O’Connor, who spoke at an award luncheon for lawyers who provided free legal help to the poor, earlier was visibly moved by the acceptance speech of Manlin Maureen Chee of Greensboro, N.C., who was honored for her work on behalf of aliens.

Ms. Chee talked about her own emigration to the United States and her great pride in being an American lawyer.

O’Connor appeared to wipe tears from her eyes, and she then led a standing ovation for Ms. Chee. ″I didn’t realize that I’d need my handkerchief,″ she said.

O’Connor said more lawyers need to become involved in work the legal profession calls pro bono publico - for the public good.

″Our problem is a simple one and we can solve it ourselves,″ she said. ″It’s only a matter of getting (lawyers) to donate some of their time.″

Noting there are 750,000 lawyers nationwide, O’Connor said there should be no shortage of volunteers. ″In Washington, D.C., where I live, there actually are more lawyers than people,″ she quipped.

O’Connor quoted American Bar Foundation statistics indicating that one- fourth of all poor Americans have problems requiring legal help but that public agencies are available to only 12 percent of them.

″Millions of Americans live in a form of domestic exile from the law,″ O’Connor said. ″Many people are pushed over the brink of homelessness every year for no better reason than their inability to receive legal assistance.″

″Now, more than ever, access to the most basic things in life requires a knowledge of the law,″ she said. ″People don’t know the rights they have ... they desperately need legal services but can’t afford them.″

The justice, who next month will mark her 10th anniversary as the first and only woman on the nation’s highest court, said making pro bono work mandatory for lawyers is ″a bad idea″ and ″an invitation to legal malpractice″ by disgruntled lawyers.

Instead, she offered three suggestions: giving law students ″exposure to real poverty″ through programs where students help the poor; setting up educational programs aimed at telling potential clients about their rights and the availability of free help; and telling lawyers what they can do.

″We’re not doing enough to spread the word about opportunities to help,″ O’Connor said. ″The world desperately needs your time and your skills. You’re needed, and you’re needed now.″

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