Committee Chair Corner – Social Justice Pro Bono Committee
Matthew D. Keenan
Shook, Hardy & Bacon L.L.P.
The movie Dead Man Walking was released in 1995 to critical and popular acclaim. Based on the book written by Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun, the screenplay elevated the mission of Sister Helen’s religious order -- the Sisters of Saint Joseph. Their order sponsors 30 different ministries -- including three high schools -- while also supporting justice and peace initiatives such as ending human trafficking and the death penalty.
Mother Teresa’s Order of the Missionaries of Charity may be the best known order of nuns to the general public, but in fact there are some 50 other different religious orders that operate in more than 150 countries. They all largely share a common mission of advocating for the poor and disadvantaged.
And lest you think you inadvertently clicked on the wrong newsletter, prepare to be enlightened. But often the causes advocated by the religious orders demand the help of an experienced litigator willing to work for free. Sister Helen’s death penalty advocacy, for example, included an Atlanta attorney named Millard Farmer.
The IADC membership is brimming with those who take on these causes. And many of those attorneys have gravitated to our Social Justice Pro Bono Committee, of which I am the Chair.
Attorneys get involved in pro bono cases that support certain causes or charities that have a personal connection to them. That is certainly true with me. In my hometown in western Kansas, my parents built our house in 1965 across the street from a Dominican convent. The Dominican sisters who lived there also taught at my grade school, St. Patrick’s, which was located two blocks to the west. And if you were Catholic in Great Bend, Kansas, you knew very well a collection of women who dressed in formal attire and who could only be addressed with the surname “Sister.”
And in fifth grade at St Pat’s my path intersected with one Sister Janice Thome.
Sister Janice was raised on farm west of Wichita with her seven siblings. She heard a calling to join the convent at the age of 16, devoting her life to the teachings of the Dominicans, putting the poor first. Sister Janice hasn’t published a book and there is no Hollywood screenplay in offing. But I could make the case that her works are every bit as worthy as anything Sister Helen Prejean did. Her life’s work has shown an aversion to the trivial and a dedication to what matters. A lifetime of devotion to the notion that the person who really wants to make change in the world finds a way; the other finds an excuse.
To further trace the trajectory of her life would exceed this newsletter’s word limit...
But in the years that followed, our paths diverged. I went east, she went east, south, and finally west, but some 40 years later we reconnected at a Dominican fundraiser in my hometown. She explained that she was working in Garden City, Kansas with immigrant populations attracted to the meat packing industry. She had been in direct ministry with the economic poor in Garden City since the fall of 1996. “We are to be present to the poor and help them access resources they need and create resources where none exist,” she told me recently. Over the last 21 years, she has served persons from 26 countries.
And when I explained my chairmanship of Pro Bono at Shook Hardy & Bacon, we talked about collaborating down the road.
Sister Janice is known to make offers one cannot refuse. And yes, my phone started to ring with a caller ID showing a Garden City zip code. The cases with needy clients began to arrive. With the support of my firm, we started a relationship that continues today. From the simple case of a Medicare lien assessed against the home of the widow in need of a compromise to a more complicated case of a young lady who was seeking asylum case from her home country of Guatemala.
All of us have a Sister Janice in our lives. A fighter who benefits from someone with deeper pockets and the institutional support that comes with a law firm. If this description fits you, then come join our Committee. And bring your case with you. If you are interested in joining or have questions, please email me - firstname.lastname@example.org.
It was in 1956 when Martin Luther King, Jr. said at the conclusion of the Montgomery bus boycott that, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”