By Larry P. McDougal
While the COVID-19 pandemic has touched every corner of our lives—from our physical and mental health to our jobs and economic prospects—Texas lawyers are stepping up to give back.
Since the pandemic began, lawyers, paralegals, and law students across this great state have volunteered with local bar associations and legal aid organizations to assist their fellow Texans with free legal assistance and counsel. During National Celebration of Pro Bono week—October 25-31—the State Bar of Texas takes special pause to honor these outstanding men and women.
Earlier this year, shortly after health officials advised against in-person gatherings, several local bar volunteer programs across the state quickly developed or enhanced their online or call-in free legal clinics.
The clinics, such as those operated by the Houston, Dallas, and Tarrant County bar associations, allow callers to sign up for a time in which a volunteer attorney will respond and address their civil legal concern. Issues often involve assisting with a family law matter, answering questions about a will, or assisting a veteran with a benefits problem.
Before the pandemic, approximately 5.5 million people in Texas qualified for legal aid, meaning that if they needed advice or guidance on a legal matter they would likely not be able to afford it. As the disaster progresses, experts believe that figure will swell and so will the need for legal aid services and volunteer lawyers.
The State Bar of Texas has a longstanding commitment to fostering a culture of pro bono service in our state. We are proud of the lawyers statewide who recognize that a time of economic difficulty is not a reason to shy from this commitment but instead view it as a call to action to help their fellow Texans.
The need for these everyday heroes shows no sign of abating. Millions of Texans are struggling to keep up with rent payments. Action by the federal government has placed a temporary halt on evictions for nonpayment of rent and Governor Greg Abbott announced the Texas Eviction Diversion Program, which shows promise to assist both landlords and renters in the state. Yet, legal aid experts predict an eviction crisis still looms that could have long-lasting consequences for the state’s most vulnerable residents.
It will take bar associations, courts, legal aid agencies, and many others working together to spread the word about these new programs and protections, helping both tenants and landlords understand their rights and responsibilities. To assist in this effort the State Bar of Texas has gathered tenant and landlord resources at texasbar.com/renterinfo.
Meanwhile, the State Bar of Texas Legal Access Division is working with a justice technology company to finalize the launch of a statewide online portal designed to seamlessly connect legal volunteers with Texans in need. The portal is expected to debut in the coming months.
Now, a message directly to the lawyers, paralegals, and law students on the front lines of this effort during such a difficult time: There aren’t enough words to express the pride and gratitude the State Bar has for your selfless service to the people of Texas. Thank you.
Larry P. McDougal, owner of the Law Office of Larry P. McDougal in Richmond, Texas, is the 2020-2021 president of the State Bar of Texas.