Rule of LawIRAP and Pro Bono Net deserve your help

This is the season when we are all bombarded with requests for donations from worthy charities. Lawyers and the colleagues who work with them tend to be in a position where they can afford to be generous. Along with the legion of good causes you already know about, I bring to your attention two groups who have a legitimate claim on the generosity of lawyers, because both are involved in defending and extending the rule of law at home and abroad.

The first is the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP). Five Yale Law students started the project in 2008. They focused on helping Iraqis seeking asylum because of their political, religious, or social status, and Iraqis who had aided U.S. forces and contractors during the war and then needed to flee their homes to find safe havens. Today IRAP has grown to work with refugees from 15 countries across the Middle East, and draws on volunteer help from 50 law firms and more than two dozen law schools.

IRAP’s work saves lives. Recently I met in New York with a newly arrived Iraqi immigrant. A medical doctor, in the early days of the war he had cared for three wounded American soldiers. After U.S. forces withdrew, some of his neighbors threatened his family. So he asked for asylum in the United States. Without IRAP’s assistance, he told me, he would have been dead before his pleas were heard.

These stories are plentiful. Here is a recent thread on the Humans of New York site.

IRAP is making a powerful statement about the importance of the rule of law and decent, credible procedures even amid the refugee chaos that fills our daily news reports. By all accounts, the refugee process is arcane, bureaucratic, and, worse, seldom subject to any independent review. IRAP lawyers help applicants work their way through the maddening systems of the United States and the United Nations. According to its records, IRAP has helped resettle 3,000 refugees and their families in nine different countries.

IRAP’s work extends from refugee camps in Jordan to the hallways of Congress. This is not for the faint of heart or fear-mongering blowhards. It’s telling to me that a retired Green Beret major who served two tours of duty in Iraq now chairs IRAP’s board.

Whatever you may think of our misadventures in Iraq or our refugee policy, lawyers and their colleagues will understand the importance of having an equitable, accountable system for deciding whom our nation can help. A donation to IRAP is a step in that direction. It’s a small organization. If you want your dollars to have impact, they will at IRAP. Again:

Advancing the rule of law is more than an issue abroad. Every lawyer and too many of our citizens know about the so-called justice gap, the inability of people with limited means to afford legal services. We’ve acknowledged this problem. We’ve studied and discussed it. But for all the effort it remains with us, a wound to our consciences and a prod to our aspirations.

Pro Bono Net, actually tries to fix the problem. Sixteen years old, PBN uses technology to extend the reach of legal services around the nation. PBN is the force behind a network of self-help web sites called Law Help Interactive, which provides forms and other legal information for needy individuals and pro bono advocates. PBN helped build the Immigration Advocates Network, which, among other things, supports immigration rights lawyers and projects as well as providing information to those seeking naturalization. PBN also runs a national clearinghouse that puts together volunteer lawyers with clients.

How and whether technology will disrupt the practice of law is a popular topic on the conference and lecture circuit. PBN isn’t waiting for the answers. PBN is using technology today to help people who need legal services. Perhaps we could join in a pact: let’s all pass up one conference in 2016 devoted to transformational technology and instead contribute the admission fee to Pro Bono Net.

While the talk continues, PBN is creating facts on the ground and, byte-by-byte, closing the justice gap in our midst.  (Full disclosure: I am a PBN board member.) Again: Talk is good fun; in this case, action is better.

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