Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
Lawyer to Lawyer Mentoring Event
Oct. 10, 2019

(Remarks prepared for delivery on Oct. 10, 2019, at the Akron Bar Association.)

Good evening, everyone.

Thank you, Karen for your kind introduction.

I want to thank the Akron Bar Association for hosting all of us, as well as the Commission on Professionalism at the Supreme Court of Ohio for its deep commitment to promoting access to justice.

The Commission on Professionalism started “Lawyer to Lawyer” events in 2015.

WHY?

Because mentoring is so important – on two levels:

One: We all learn in faceted ways. What we learned in law school is only the beginning of the learning that is necessary to be a competent lawyer. Maybe the most instructive information comes with learning from others who can share, and teach by word and example.

And two: Having a mentor to be your resource, your nonjudgmental yogi, your friend a benefit that everyone needs ... new lawyers in particular, but every lawyer could use a mentor.

A mentor is someone you can be honest with – about things you think you know, and things you don’t.

The lawyer-to-lawyer mentoring model is not unique to lawyers. It’s being done for new members of the judiciary…and I am a mentor for two newer chief justices in our country.

This event is about networking, but it’s also about giving back.

When successful, experienced lawyers and judges look back on their careers – more often than not – they see a mentor.

They see a vision of at least one person who may have motivated them, cheered them on, or offered advisory stepping stones for advancement in their careers. 

That’s why it’s so important for you to lift up someone else.

All of you know that access to justice is an issue that I’ve been championing for, well what seems like forever ...

One way to mentor a new lawyer – and for mentors to continue to make a difference - is to engage in pro bono work.

Pro bono is an arena where mentoring can pay off exponentially.

The mentor succeeds because the “mentee” learns new skills while providing a benefit for someone who’s gotten into a mess and needs the help of the lawyer.

The new lawyer learns by doing under the tutelage of a mentor ... there’s nothing better for teaching lessons and skills that will last a lifetime.

I can’t emphasize enough what donating one’s time and resources can do to increase access to civil justice in Ohio.

The need far outstrips the available resources.

The legal aid programs and organizations represented here tonight all work hard to provide justice.

You have my heartfelt gratitude.

In addition to performing this work, we must continue to reach out to those attorneys who could join our pro bono ranks for the first time.

Help them dig in.

In the past few years we have made significant changes to broaden the ranks of pro bono providers.

Four years ago we changed our rules so that attorneys with corporate counsel status could provide pro bono services.

A year later we created a new registration category called Emeritus Pro Bono Attorney, which expands the number of available lawyers. 

Even as we make positive changes like this, the public’s need for legal guidance in civil cases remains large, constant and unfilled.

Here are the sobering statistics:

Ohio legal aid organizations must turn away three people for every one person who seeks or needs help. (Source: Martha Asseff)

What is the universe of the need out there? About one in five Ohioans qualify for civil legal aid.

In Ohio, we must rely on attorneys in our communities to give of their time and talent, so that we can meet these critical needs.

You, as lawyers, have unique skills that can make a real difference in the lives of low-income or disadvantaged Ohioans.

It is work that only lawyers can do.

Pro bono service creates changes in people’s lives in tangible ways.

Let me just touch on some examples:

And that’s just to name a few.

When you perform pro bono work, you open yourself up to new experiences that your day job might not afford you.

By offering pro bono services, you can see a whole new world. Better yet, you will find your new expertise to be inspiring.

There’s an added bonus.

Attorneys in Ohio can earn one hour of CLE credit for every six hours they spend performing pro bono service.

In many instances, legal problems sneak up on people who don’t have the means to cope.

At other times, entire communities can be in legal peril.

Over Memorial Day weekend, tornadoes struck hundreds of homes in and around Dayton.

Immediately, 115 people received pro bono aid from attorneys. (Source: Kathy Maloney in the upcoming In Depth)

These lawyers weren’t necessarily working on familiar issues. They were helping people who were suddenly homeless.

Others needed help recovering information from destroyed documents. Some were faced with contractor scams.

There were insurance claims to be filed, and appeals of denial of federal disaster aid.

Some of these problems were settled quickly. Others are still playing out.

But I found it heartening that Ohio attorneys were among the first responders to this crisis.

We have a birthday to celebrate in the legal aid world.

The non-profit Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation – known so well as OLAF – recently changed its name to the Ohio Access to Justice Foundation.

That’s such a great name. It brings the word Justice to the forefront – and to me reflects a natural progression of your hard work.

It’s aspirational – and inspirational !

The Ohio Access to Justice Foundation just celebrated its 25th anniversary helping Ohioans who don’t have the means to pay for an attorney in civil matters.

Congratulations for that milestone.

There’s no resting on laurels with this group.

They have just launched a website called “Ohio Legal Help” that makes Internet navigation easier for those in need.

And they have recently put into service their “Justice Bus.”

It’s a full-size van that is taking attorneys and civil aid staffers on the road throughout our state.

I also at this time want to call out the fine work of Community Legal Aid of northeast Ohio, based here in Akron.

Your list of outreach events for those in need is truly impressive.

I counted 42 events on your website for October alone – from clinics on living wills and credit card debt to the problems of veterans, delinquent taxes and personal  housing crises.

One seminar next week (Oct 16) is called, simply, “Save Your Home Class.” That is simple, and sobering.

Avoiding foreclosure by letting people know their rights and how they can obtain financial help is so fundamental.

Thank you, Community Legal Aid, for all you do – literally every day.

So, mentors and new attorneys – please visualize yourself within the world of pro bono.

Consider volunteering. There’s no shortage of need.

In fact, this evening, you can talk to pro bono providers and explore the opportunities available.

The commitment to pro bono is laudatory. Yes. But we also must make sure that progress in this endeavor matches our commitment.

We need more hands on deck as the need grows.

You won’t be sorry for taking part.

Thanks for listening.

And may God Bless.