Note: This article was published in the October 2018 edition of the Virginia State Bar’s Virginia Lawyer, see http://www.vsb.org/site/publications/valawyer/october-2018.)
There was no legal aid program in the Shenandoah Valley in 1969 when my late mother, penniless and distraught, walked the streets of downtown Staunton searching for an attorney who would represent her even though she had no means to pay. I was 14 years old at the time, but my recollection is that Mary Baldwin College had just started a pro bono referral program in our town as a community service, and my mother was one of the first to seek assistance through it. Her great fortune was that a promising young lawyer in Staunton, Rudolph “Duke” Bumgardner III (later, a general district, circuit, and Virginia Court of Appeals judge), had signed up for the pro bono list, and she was referred to him. Mr. Bumgardner graciously agreed to represent my mother on a pro bono basis, and he zealously did so over the next several years, ultimately obtaining a favorable outcome for her. She was eternally grateful for his representation. She would always note that not only did he do an outstanding job in representing her, but that he was also unfailingly respectful and courteous to her — “treating [her] like a queen” — even though she could not afford to pay him for his services. Judge Bumgardner’s pro bono assistance had a real impact on the lives of my mother and her children. In the process, it impressed upon me the critical importance of ensuring access to justice for the less fortunate and the crucial role pro bono service plays in accomplishing this.
This culture of professionalism and the duty to render pro bono service it engenders — embodied in Judge Bumgardner’s pro bono representation of my mother a half century ago — is still alive amongst the members of the valley’s legal community. To wit, the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Bar Association has operated a pro bono referral program with Blue Ridge Legal Services (“BRLS,” the legal aid society that serves the Shenandoah Valley, the Roanoke Valley, and the Alleghany Highlands) for over 35 years. The bar’s program presumes universal participation by its members and an expectation that each will donate a minimum of 20 hours annually to these pro bono referrals, in addition to other pro bono and community service undertaken. Thirty-five years later, this program is still going strong. It has received state and national recognition, including the American Bar Association’s prestigious Harrison Tweed Award in 1995 and the Virginia State Bar’s Lewis F Powell Jr. Pro Bono Award in 1998.
Similar pro bono programs have long been supported by the various bar associations across the Shenandoah Valley, dating back to the early 1980s. At the southern end of BRLS’ service area, the legal community in the Roanoke Valley has similarly displayed a strong commitment to pro bono service for decades. The Virginia Bar Association won the ABA’s Harrison Tweed Award in 1995 for its pro bono hotlines, including its pro bono hotline in Roanoke. In addition to supporting the pro bono hotline, the Roanoke Valley’s legal community has supported a robust pro bono referral program operated by legal aid since the 1980s. In 2017, at the request of Chief Justice Lemons, the judiciary and bar leaders in the 25th Judicial Circuit collaborated with BRLS in a pro bono recruitment initiative among the four bar associations in the circuit, ranging from Staunton to Fincastle. The initiative resulted in an impressive 86 percent of the actively practicing private attorneys in the Circuit agreeing to participate in BRLS’ pro bono referral programs.
In 2013, the Virginia State Bar’s Access to Legal Services Committee undertook the first study ever to measure the amount of pro bono service being rendered across the commonwealth. Using the data available (there being no system in place at that time for comprehensive pro bono reporting), the study found that the Valley’s attorneys were performing pro bono service at twice the rate of the Commonwealth as a whole. The Valley led every other region of the state both in the percentage of lawyers participating in pro bono programs and in the number of pro bono cases handled per capita.
I proudly commend the lawyers in the Valley of Virginia for your quiet, longstanding tradition of pro bono service. If there are attorneys in our service area who are not yet being provided meaningful pro bono opportunities, please contact me, and we will work together to find the best way to use your skills to provide access to justice for folks in the valley who really need legal representation — just as my mother did, fifty years ago.
John E. Whitfield is the executive director of Blue Ridge Legal Services.