How businesses can help Kansas’ pro bono lawyer problem

April 18, 2018

By Jennifer Adams

You hear it all the time: There are just too many lawyers. But that couldn’t be any further from the truth in Kansas, where less than one-third of one percent of the population is a lawyer and the demand for indigent defense far outpaces the supply.

Attorneys with the nonprofit Kansas Legal Services represented more than 9,000 disadvantaged clients in 2017, but even more requests for legal assistance — upwards of 10,000 — went unanswered. This is an injustice, disproportionately hurting those who lack the resources to navigate a complicated legal system while perpetuating a two-tiered system that seems to serve only the wealthy and well-connected at the expense of everyone else.

That’s why Koch Industries, along with Kansas Legal Services and other Kansas businesses and organizations, petitioned the state Board of Law Examiners to level the playing field by allowing in-house counsel with a restricted license to provide pro bono legal services.

Kansas Supreme Court Rule 712, governing admission to the Kansas bar, currently allows an attorney who is fully licensed in another state but has not taken the Kansas bar exam to work only for a single employer under a restricted license. A lawyer practicing with this restricted license is prohibited from providing legal services to any other client, including pro bono clients who cannot afford legal representation.

In this respect, Kansas is lagging much of the nation in ensuring sufficient legal representation is available for those who cannot afford it. Thirty-four states plus the District of Columbia allow attorneys with a restricted license to participate in pro bono services in addition to their corporate in-house responsibilities, following the recommendation of the American Bar Association.

Protecting everyone’s inalienable Sixth Amendment right to effective representation is a fundamental requirement of a fair criminal justice system. There is no cause more compelling nor more important than that.

This is a constitutional crisis. More than 80 percent of those in need of legal defense rely on court-appointed lawyers. The same government that is seeking to take away someone’s liberty is also required by the Constitution to provide that individual with effective counsel. But that oftentimes doesn’t happen because of the lack of available public defenders and court-appointed lawyers.

In both civil and criminal courts, decades of misguided policies have resulted in a system where if you’re wealthy and connected, you get a much better deal than if you’re poor. By changing this rule, Kansas can assist those seeking a fair shot at justice.

At Koch Industries, we believe that free people are capable of extraordinary things. But to be free, all must be afforded equal justice. There is nothing more important to a society, because without a legitimate justice system, there is neither peace nor prosperity.

We must do better. There are scores of in-house attorneys across our state willing to make a difference in our communities if given the chance.

We encourage the Kansas Board of Law Examiners to recommend this rule change to the state Supreme Court, to answer the call of the underserved across Kansas, and to remove barriers to opportunity for all. This rule change — if approved — will help enable justice for those who need it most.

Jennifer Adams is chief counsel of litigation at Koch Industries.

 

This op-ed originally appeared in the Kansas City Star.