And Justice for All

Equal opportunity for justice before impartial law is a supposed bedrock of American citizenship. All too often, though, that noble ideal is honored more in the breach than the observance. The legal profession, and the country, must simply do better.

Legal Justice for All Americans is Lacking
Harry M. Reasoner

Harry M. Reasoner

November 4, 2021 06:30 AM

The pledge of “Justice for All” in America’s Pledge of Allegiance is one of the highest aspirations of our country and of the legal profession. Practicing lawyers give millions of dollars’ worth of time in pro bono representation. Congress contributes annually to fund Legal Service Corporations that handle tens of thousands of cases across the country. Some states make substantial contributions. Some state Supreme Courts take leadership roles in seeking support for access to justice.

In Texas, our Supreme Court is a national leader in seeking ways to enhance access to justice. It created a Texas Access to Justice Commission to implement improvements, which I have chaired for over 10 years. We have sought reforms in statutes and rules that enhance pro bono representation and make pro se representation more feasible. We have filed pro bono briefs on access to justice issues and raised millions to increase legal aid by lawyers.

I have practiced law as a trial lawyer for almost 60 years. I tried pro bono cases regularly before my appointment to the commission. I have never done anything in the law more rewarding than my work on the commission. However, I was startled to learn how inadequate our support for access to justice is in the United States.

The governmental and pro bono contributions fall far short of our country’s need for assistance in access to justice. The federal government defines the poverty line as $26,500 for a family of four. Over 57 million people are eligible for legal aid using the federal test for eligibility of income of 125 percent of the current poverty line or less. This dramatically understates the need, as a high percentage of the middle class cannot afford lawyers for significant legal problems. For example, in many states, under five percent of the defendants are represented in debt collection or eviction cases. The Legal Services Corporation (, a federal agency trying to enhance access to justice, is an excellent source of data showing the need for assistance and the number actually served.

The inability to get legal assistance can often lead to tragic results. For example, many women and children who are victims of domestic violence cannot get free without legal assistance. Without a protective order or child support, they have to live subject to beatings and other abuse.

Many unscrupulous merchants prey on the poor by adding extra charges to a contract price, charging exorbitant interest or selling them shoddy goods. Titles to the homes of many families are lost because they could not afford to go to probate court to clear title on the death of the titled owner. Veterans often need legal help in compelling the Department of Veterans Affairs to honor its legal obligations. The VA is underfunded and often resists aid for mental problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder, or it denies funds to make veterans’ homes livable in the face of crippling injuries.

If we are to honor our country’s values, we must do much better. It is estimated that in many states, one (or less) out of ten citizens in need of legal assistance receives it. Millions are left suffering domestic abuse; defrauded by those who prey on the poor and elderly; deprived improperly of veteran’s medical assistance and the benefits the veteran has earned; or losing the family home because of financial inability to probate the estate of the deceased title holder.

To deal with the great need for access, we need to educate the bar and our country on the consequences of a high percentage of our population having no access to justice. A high percentage of lawyers have no understanding of the great need for legal assistance in obtaining access to justice and the consequences of lack of access. It should be a mandatory bar exam subject.

The ABA strives to support access to justice but only a limited number of lawyers participate. To make progress, the need for access to justice should be a mandatory subject in law school with the opportunity to do pro bono work as a student. Happily, many law schools have started doing this. It should also be part of high school civics. Students who do not learn of the need for access to justice and the consequences of lacking it will be citizens blind to one of the most important problems in our society.

Major foundations and Chambers of Commerce should be informed of the importance of access to justice and the consequences of it not being available to millions. Only if we address the need as an informed citizenry can we hope to provide true access to justice and honor our Pledge of Allegiance.

Harry Reasoner is a Senior Partner at Vinson & Elkins LLP where he has specialized in litigation. He has Chaired the Texas Access to Justice Commission for over 10 years. He attended Rice University; the University of Texas School of Law and the London School of Economics. He clerked for Judge Charles E. Clark on the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit before joining Vinson & Elkins.

Related Articles

Hybrid Work - A Path for Female Lawyers

by Roberta Liebenberg

Remote work, flex time, some combination of both, all the rest of the pandemic’s new office normal: mere hype, or finally a meaningful option for female lawyers?

Remote Work Becoming Vital for Female Lawyers

An Allied Front Against Ransomware

by Abigail L. Peluso, Georgia N. Alexakis, John K. Theis and Patricia Brown Holmes

With the world ever more digitally entwined—particularly as the pandemic has increasingly driven commerce and ordinary business activity more fully online—the threat of ransomware is here to stay. Here’s a primer on the federal government’s response and how the private sector can help.

Federal Government’s Response to Ransomware

Navigating the New Normal

by Jody E. Briandi

The pandemic has upended many law firms’ internal culture and their lawyers’ work habits, in many ways for the better. As we approach 2022, how can we consolidate those positive effects to transform the practice of law (and our personal lives) for the better?

Work Habits Affected by the Pandemic

Bidding Wars: Understanding Federal Bid Protests

by Lori Ann Lange

Federal government contracting can be convoluted. Here’s a primer on filing a bid protest for parties who think they’ve been wronged.

Filing Big Protest with Federal Government

High Court Merit

by Tracy Collins Ortlieb

In progressive legal circles, the name Robbie Kaplan has emerged as an omnipresent force for equal and human rights.

Q&A With Roberta Kaplan

Nina T. Pirrotti - New Haven 2020 Lawyer of the Year

by Best Lawyers

Employment Law - Individuals New Haven, Connecticut

Nina Pirrotti

A Firm Dedicated to Growth and Knowledge

by Johanna Marmon

The Scarlett Law Group has paved the path toward justice regarding traumatic brain injury cases.

The Scarlett Law Group

Broken Glass

by BAL

BAL's commitment to equality in the workplace.

Law Firm Profile: BAL

Trending Articles

The 2024 Best Lawyers in Spain™

by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is honored to announce the 16th edition of The Best Lawyers in Spain™ and the third edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in Spain™ for 2024.

Tall buildings and rushing traffic against clouds and sun in sky

Best Lawyers Expands Chilean 2024 Awards

by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is pleased to announce the 14th edition of The Best Lawyers in Chile™ and the inaugural edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in Chile™, honoring the top lawyers and firms conferred on by their Chilean peers.

Landscape of city in Chile

The Best Lawyers in Spain™ 2023

by Best Lawyers

Announcing Spain's recognized lawyers for 2023.

Flag of Spain

Announcing The Best Lawyers in South Africa™ 2024

by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is excited to announce the landmark 15th edition of The Best Lawyers in South Africa™ for 2024, including the exclusive "Law Firm of the Year" awards.

Sky view of South Africa town and waterways

Announcing the 2023 The Best Lawyers in America Honorees

by Best Lawyers

Only the top 5.3% of all practicing lawyers in the U.S. were selected by their peers for inclusion in the 29th edition of The Best Lawyers in America®.

Gold strings and dots connecting to form US map

The Best Lawyers in Portugal™ 2024

by Best Lawyers

The 2024 awards for Portugal include the 14th edition of The Best Lawyers in Portugal™ and 2nd edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in Portugal™.

City and beach with green water and blue sky

The Best Lawyers in Peru™ 2024

by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is excited to announce the landmark 10th edition of The Best Lawyers in Peru, the prestigious award recognizing the country's lop legal talent.

Landscape of Peru city with cliffside and ocean

The Best Lawyers in South Africa™ 2023

by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers proudly announces lawyers recognized in South Africa for 2023.

South African flag

The Best Lawyers in Chile™ 2023

by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers and firms in Chile.

White star in blue box beside white box with red box on bottom

The Best Lawyers in Colombia™ 2024

by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is honored to announce the 14th edition of The Best Lawyers in Colombia™ for 2024, which honors Colombia's most esteemed lawyers and law firms.

Cityscape of Colombia with blue cloudy sky above

Announcing the 2024 Best Lawyers in Puerto Rico™

by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is proud to announce the 11th edition of The Best Lawyers in Puerto Rico™, honoring the top lawyers and firms across the country for 2024.

View of Puerto Rico city from the ocean

Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America for 2023

by Best Lawyers

The third edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America™ highlights the legal talent of lawyers who have been in practice less than 10 years.

Three arrows made of lines and dots on blue background

The 2023 Best Lawyers in Portugal™

by Best Lawyers

Announcing the elite group of lawyers recognized in Portugal for 2023.

Green and red Portuguese flag

Unwrapping Shrinkflation

by Justin Smulison

Through the lens of the United States, we take a closer look at the global implication of companies downsizing products while maintaining and often raising prices.

Chocolate bar being unwrapped from foil

2021 Best Lawyers: The Global Issue

by Best Lawyers

The 2021 Global Issue features top legal talent from the most recent editions of Best Lawyers and Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch worldwide.

2021 Best Lawyers: The Global Issue

What the Courts Say About Recording in the Classroom

by Christina Henagen Peer and Peter Zawadski

Students and parents are increasingly asking to use audio devices to record what's being said in the classroom. But is it legal? A recent ruling offer gives the answer to a question confusing parents and administrators alike.

Is It Legal for Students to Record Teachers?