Opinion » Editorial

Following Alexander Hamilton's example during Pro Bono Week

by John Carroll
Tuesday Oct 27, 2015

For someone who died more than two centuries ago, Alexander Hamilton is in the news quite a bit lately. Some of his newfound notoriety stems from the blockbuster Broadway musical "Hamilton," a biographical piece that is currently doing better box office than perennial pleasers like "Wicked" and "The Book of Mormon." Additionally, there is a movement to remove Hamilton's image from the 10 dollar bill and replace it with that of a woman. As we observe National Pro Bono Week from Oct. 25-31, there's one more reason to contemplate Hamilton's legacy.

Much is known about Hamilton's historical roles as a Founding Father, an author of the Federalist Papers, and the first Secretary of the Treasury. We also know well Hamilton's political feuds with John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and his dramatic death in a duel with Aaron Burr, a sitting American vice president. Not much attention is paid, however, to the fact that after he left government service, Hamilton was a passionate provider of pro bono legal representation to poor and marginalized people in his adopted hometown of New York City. This little-known piece of his life is detailed by Russell Fowler in "Alexander Hamilton: Pro Bono Lawyer," an article published last year in the Tennessee Bar Journal.

Fowler documents how Hamilton, despite being of modest means and with a large family to feed, took on more pro bono clients than his creditors would have preferred. He did not limit this work to high-profile cases or impact litigation, rather he represented indigent people in the slums of the city?especially women?on routine civil and criminal matters.

Hamilton was a royalist who favored a strong central government that was more conservative and less democratic, but whose belief in the importance of fairness and equal justice for all was so strong that it fueled his pro bono work. Fowler adds that Hamilton's dedication to providing free legal representation to the poor stemmed from his own impoverished upbringing. Born to unwed parents in the West Indies in 1757?his mother was actually married to another man at the time?Hamilton was consigned to a life of poverty after his father abandoned him and his mother. After Hamilton's mother died when he was just 11 years old, he was denied what little inheritance she left him because he was by law illegitimate. A probate court awarded his mother's personal property to her long-estranged and abusive husband. It was only through generous benefactors in his St. Croix community, who recognized his intelligence and industriousness and decided to send him to college, that Hamilton made his way to America in 1772 and enrolled in what is now Columbia University. The rest, as they say, is history.

One need not come from such humble beginnings to understand the critical importance of equal access to our legal system for everyone, regardless of ability to pay. Indeed, there is a long tradition in the legal profession of providing pro bono service to the poor, and many firms require their attorneys to fulfill a set amount of pro bono hours per year as a condition of employment.

Pro bono representation is a desperately needed complement to the array of legal services provided by our state- and federally-funded network of civil legal aid organizations, which provide assistance to individuals and families living in poverty who need help with non-criminal legal matters such as divorce, child support, access to health care and education, employment discrimination, housing issues, or protection from domestic violence. In fact, the Boston Bar Association's (BBA) 2014 report " Investing in Justice: A Roadmap to Cost-Effective Funding of Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts," found that in 2013 attorneys in Massachusetts supplemented the efforts of four civil legal aid programs in the state with 82,000 pro bono hours. Nonetheless, the BBA found that despite the extraordinary efforts of attorneys doing pro bono work, 30,000 low-income people?about two-thirds of those who qualify for civil legal aid and sought services?were nonetheless turned away due to a lack of resources. The unfortunate reality is that the need for assistance far outstrips the capacity of legal aid organizations and private attorneys doing pro bono work.

Perhaps helping a family that is living paycheck to paycheck stay in their home, ensuring a disabled child receives the educational services to which he or she is entitled, or helping a single mother obtain child support from a former spouse isn't the stuff of splashy Broadway musicals. But pro bono service has its rewards, as Alexander Hamilton knew?and many lawyers working today also know. It is the satisfaction of knowing one has made a tangible, positive difference in the life of another and the pride of living up to the most important ideal articulated by our Founding Fathers: we are all created equal.

John Carroll is an attorney at Meehan, Boyle, Black & Bogdanow. He is Chair of the Equal Justice Coalition.