Challenge for Lawyers

LAWYERS have had a tough time lately winning their case in the court of public opinion. Polls indicate approval ratings dropping as legal fees rise.

The generations of idealists who went to law school to become Nader's Raiders or pro-bono advocates are perceived - rightly or wrongly - to belong to the glory of the past.

Under the circumstances, it is reassuring to find the American Bar Association publishing a report, "America's Children at Risk: A National Agenda for Legal Action," urging free legal assistance to poor children who need access to the system but lack money and empowerment on their own. The report also recommends changes in the legal system, such as restructuring courts that handle children's cases into a unified and comprehensive family court.

Equally encouraging is the prompt support of Attorney General Janet Reno in a speech at the annual meeting of the bar association in New York last week. "Lawyers have an extraordinary and very special challenge to look beyond their own specialties ... to look beyond their own pocketbooks," she said. Inviting members of her audience to "adopt" a first grade, a school, or a neighborhood block, she emphasized the need to help children before, not after, they end up in the court system.

Furthermore, Ms. Reno called upon lawyers and paralegals to help the poor, adults as well as children, on Social Security questions, landlord-tenant disputes, and similar advisory matters.

What Reno calls "reweaving the fabric of society" will require the efforts of countless groups and individuals, not just those in the legal profession. But in dedicating themselves to serving justice and the social good, rather than just winning fat cases, the nation's lawyers, and first lawyer Reno, are reasserting their primary value to society.

If future evidence indicates that actions are following rhetoric, even confirmed skeptics will be ready to applaud and say: Long live this breed of lawyer.

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