Tara Casey has served as the Director of the Carrico Center for Pro Bono Service at the University of Richmond School of Law since 2007. Previously, she was an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. In her role as Director of the Carrico Center, Tara oversees 13 pro bono projects in partnership with Richmond-area organizations, including programs on criminal appeals, housing law, and immigration. She also directs the Bridge to Practice fellowship program, supporting students pursuing careers in public service. Additionally, Tara serves on the Virginia Access to Justice Commission.
I like to remind students that one of the founding principles of our country is justice: “With liberty and justice for all.” It wasn’t “Be law-abiding.” It wasn’t “Follow the rules.” It was, essentially, “Seek justice.” Regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, your guiding principle should be the pursuit of justice.
I also tell my students that the legal profession, unfortunately, is one of the unhappiest. You look at any study about who is least happy, and it tends to be lawyers. If you cross-check those studies with what bring happiness to individuals, you discover that the answer is volunteerism. Overlay those studies, I tell students, and consider your future. You can be a tremendously successful private attorney and still do pro bono work. Attorneys often say that their most rewarding cases were those with pro bono clients. So I encourage students to pursue pro bono service. Because if we can’t turn out happy lawyers, we will be in even more late-night TV dramas than we already are!
Pro bono service is not yet embedded in the legal profession. In the Virginia State Bar's Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 6.1 is an aspirational goal that 2% of an attorney’s time every year should be dedicated to pro bono service. By most recent studies, we fall very short of that goal as a profession statewide. If you think about what 2% of thousands of attorneys’ time would look like and what’s actually being provided, then you see that we’re not meeting that standard—not even close. I hope we can shift that. When people whom you respect tell you this is important, it resonates—and we’ve seen that with certain firms in town. Thanks to the leadership at Hunton & Williams, for example, they now have 100% attorney contribution to pro bono service and they’ve become a model for other firms. We must encourage attorneys to get out of their comfort zones.
One enormous problem that pro bono service can address is the access to justice gap—the gap between a person in need of legal services and the ability of that person to secure those services.
This gap manifests itself in several ways. In rural communities, the access gap is often physical. If you don’t have reliable transportation and your region offers only a small cadre of attorneys, you may not be able to physically reach an attorney. Financially, in rural and urban areas alike, many people simply can’t afford an attorney. But their incomes are high enough that they don’t qualify for legal aid. Many people mistakenly think that if you can’t pay an attorney, you can call a legal aid organization and they will represent you. But legal aid organizations already have bulging case loads and small staffs; so they tend to focus on individuals with the greatest needs and vulnerabilities. As a result, and too often, people who cannot afford an attorney become their own representation. But it’s David against Goliath, and it's heartbreaking.
There’s also a psychological gap in our society between what we think of as access to justice and what we think our society ought to provide. Think about it: In what situations do we have a constitutional right to legal counsel? We don’t necessarily have a right to counsel at bail hearings. So, you could be facing incarceration or the setting of your bail, and you may not have the right to an attorney to argue on your behalf. In family law cases, you could be arguing about the custody of your children—the most sacred part of your existence as a parent—and so many people pursue it without an attorney because there’s no constitutional right to one. There’s no right to counsel at bankruptcy proceedings. So you’re facing creditors, all represented by attorneys, and you’re trying to navigate those waters on your own. Most people, including some lawyers, aren't aware that there’s no constitutional right to an attorney in immigration proceedings. You could be deported without any legal counsel. And we have unaccompanied minors—kids as young as four years old—who are going to immigration court by themselves because their families can’t afford an attorney and we’ve decided as a society that they are not constitutionally due one.
There’s an education gap as well. There are situations where people don’t realize that they would benefit from having an attorney, simply because they don’t know their rights. If a landlord is treating you in a certain negative way, you may see that as a relationship issue rather than a legal one. Or, if you can’t pay your bills and the power company is threatening to cut off services in the middle of winter, you may see that as a financial issue—not a legal one. But all of these situations call for an attorney. What most people want above all is to be heard. They want to be treated with respect. That’s a critical role our justice system can play.
The pro bono programs at the University of Richmond School of Law act as tremendous learning opportunities for our students, but they also make real contributions to the justice system. In our criminal appeals program, a law student is matched with a criminal defense attorney working on an appeal through the Circuit Court for the City of Richmond. The appeals process may take up to two years; that’s the nature of the system. The standards for success with a criminal appeal are difficult to meet, so it's likely that the appeal will fail. Indeed, in the first five years of the program, we had no successful appeals—but not for the lack of work by the attorneys or the students.
We had our first victory last year. And the law generated by the case will help similarly situated defendants. The student involved dedicated so much of himself to the case, as have all of our students. It made everyone feel so happy—even the attorneys and students involved in cases that did not have successful outcomes. They felt that we all shared this outcome.
My goal for each student, no matter the initial reason they came to the Carrico Center, is to carry a commitment to pro bono service with him or her after law school. I find it so rewarding to see former program participants return as volunteer attorneys. That’s what success looks like in our sector: the students become teachers.
—interviewed April 6, 2016