`Draft' Lawyers?

`LIBERTY and justice for all.'' So promises the pledge of allegiance. But how to ensure justice for all? The question vexes the nation and its legal community. More than many countries, the United States has built its social contract on legally enforceable rights. Yet many Americans - notably the poor - lack access to the justice system because they can't afford legal representation.

Studies repeatedly have found that the poor enjoy adequate legal representation for only about 15 percent of their significant legal problems. These include threatened eviction in landlord-tenant disputes, employment and benefits matters, divorce and child-custody cases, and consumer issues.

The poor have no constitutional right to a lawyer in civil cases. Publicly funded legal-aid providers meet only a small part of the demand. The private bar has long acknowledged a professional obligation to donate services to the poor, and many lawyers engage in ``pro bono'' (for the public good) work. As the studies show, though, lawyers' pro bono efforts are - relative to the need - meager.

To close the gap, some states are considering proposals for mandatory pro bono work by lawyers. Most significantly, a panel of lawyers and judges in New York this week called for 20 hours a year of pro bono work by most lawyers in the state. The panel espoused the view that lawyers' special role in the US system bestows a public trust on them.

Many lawyers, however, vehemently oppose what they call ``conscription.'' They resent being singled out from among many other providers of useful services for compulsory work for the poor.

While it's imperative that the poor be afforded means to vindicate fundamental rights, mandatory pro bono work is a drastic and disquieting remedy. Americans should shoulder the responsibility collectively, just as with any other vital national need, rather than through a special ``tax'' on lawyers. Besides, tax-supported legal aid by trained staff lawyers is far more efficient than pro bono work by 20-hour-a-year attorneys.

There's much that can be done to improve legal help for the poor. The federal Legal Services Corporation needs to be revitalized (with appropriate safeguards against the ``social engineering'' that makes conservatives nervous). Voluntary pro bono programs can be made more vigorous and efficient. And nonlawyers perhaps can be more imaginatively used for certain routine matters.

Lawyers do have a special obligation to help the poor. But they will render their services better as volunteers than as draftees.

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