Former Bar President Bob Schmitt speaks after receiving the Walter E. Craig Distinguished Service Award, June 16, 2011

Last Friday, hundreds of State Bar of Arizona convention attendees thronged a Westin ballroom to hear what Juan Williams had to say. And that is understandable, as we wonder about the view held by those from lofty vantage points.

But if there is a heart to a convention—and to an entire profession of lawyers—that heart was found the day before. In a ballroom not so different—though not quite as filled—the Arizona Foundation for Legal Services & Education hosted its own luncheon. There, it honored a variety of commitment that may be less ballyhooed but that is just as noteworthy. For the Foundation luncheon honored lawyers who had brought it—and when I say “it,” of course, I mean justice. These individuals had stepped up for years and years when there was no limelight and no microphone. When their only payment may have been a quiet moment in their drive back home late at night. When the more common response to a dire legal problem—walk away—would have meant devastation or worse to a person or a family.

At the luncheon, then-President-Elect Joe Kanefield delivered what may be described as one of the briefest keynotes in history (that bodes extremely well for his presidential year!), but he used his time wisely.

He took well-earned pride in the fact that Arizona lawyers recently exceeded the $1 million mark in voluntary donations via their dues statements. And he spoke eloquently about how access to justice was not merely his passion—and one of his year’s goals—but that it was a “critical component to the State Bar’s mission; and now it has been made a part of our mission statement.”

As a concrete part of his own commitment, President Kanefield was re-initiating the Bar’s Access to Justice Task Force.

He also related—via Foundation Executive Director Kevin Ruegg—a “typical day in the life of an Arizona legal services provider”:

  • 434 people had their questions answered and their hope restored.
  • 47 attorneys volunteered their time.
  • Even after all that, more than 750 had been turned away, either because they exceeded the laughably low cutoff for someone who is “too well-off” to receive free legal assistance, or because there were insufficient resources to serve them.

The facts were bleak, but Joe’s words were inspiring. And they were followed by the awards themselves:

  • John Bouma: Foundation for Justice Award
  • Hon. Daniel Barker: Mark Santana Law-Related Education Attorney of the Year
  • Ben Smith: William E. Morris Pro Bono Service Award
  • Robert Schmitt: Walter E. Craig Distinguished Service Award

Many of the award winners, as well as the distinguished people who introduced them, took the opportunity to remind the audience about the role each of them could play.

In the years that lawyer Ben Smith has stepped up to provide pro bono services, he has assisted more than 1,800 people.

That is not a typo: 1,800+

But that massive number is only a fraction of the need, Smith said.

“It epitomizes the dimensions of the problem we’re all trying to help people with. There are thousands and thousands of people with no access to the justice system.”

Cleans Elections chief Todd Lang, who introduced Ben Smith, put it more bluntly: “We all believe mightily in justice, and yet access to justice languishes.”

Throughout the event-packed convention, a profession winced, and knew not why.

In the video tribute leading up to Bob Schmitt’s award, a friend said, “Bob simply won’t say no to any request, no matter how demanding, as long as it helps someone.”

Yuma lawyer (and former Bar President) Larry Suciu said, “If every lawyer in Arizona practiced like Bob does, this would be a much better profession.”

Schmitt himself hearkened back to his old 1992 President’s column in Arizona Attorney Magazine (thanks for the shout-out, Bob!), where he “preached the 3 Ps”: pride, participation and professionalism.

All the words spoken by the honorees were nice, of course, and much appreciated. But they were unnecessary, as every one of them had lived what they preached.

Next year, if you have the opportunity, pony up the modest fee so you can attend the Foundation luncheon. It’ll help remind you why, when practiced with compassion and commitment, a trade can be transformed into a profession. 

Here are some more pictures from the event.

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