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Defending Those Who Need It Most

Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel and executive vice president, reflects on the strength of the American judicial system, but the need to make representation more available.

Ed. Note: Champions of Change is a weekly initiative to highlight Americans who are making an impact in their communities and helping our country rise to meet the many challenges of the 21st century.

Bradford Smith

Each year as I see litigation first-hand around the world, I come away with even greater appreciation for courts in the United States.  No system is perfect, including our own.  But when I walk through the doors of an American courthouse, I have more confidence in the legal rules and fair-mindedness that await me than anywhere else.

There is one catch, however. 

There’s cause for confidence only if you’re represented by a lawyer.

For a company like Microsoft, that’s obviously not an issue.  But for many people, the cost of legal representation lies beyond their financial reach.

That’s why it’s so important each year to celebrate and strengthen the American legal profession’s tradition of doing pro bono work.  Across the country, in law firms and companies large and small, tens of thousands of lawyers volunteer their time to represent clients free of charge.  Our legal system depends on it.

At Microsoft, our lawyers volunteer for a variety of clients and causes.  Over the last decade, we’ve developed a signature program focused on immigration assistance.  In recent years, our work has grown into a national program that we support, Kids in Need of Defense (KIND). Co-founded in 2008 by Microsoft with humanitarian and actress Angelina Jolie, KIND’s mission is to represent unaccompanied children in immigration proceedings.

Each year 8,000 children who have become separated from their families face an immigration proceeding alone.  In a world that is too often afflicted by war, violence, and abusive conditions for children, their personal circumstances are as diverse as the countries from which they come.  But they all share two things in common.  They have stories that deserve to be heard.  And they have stories that will be told effectively only if they have a lawyer.

KIND now works with over 3,000 lawyers at over 120 law firms and companies.  It has represented 3,100 children.  Their average age is 14; our youngest client was only two.  Operating in eight cities, the effort has truly become nationwide.

This type of national reach reflects not only the virtues of the cause, but also work to develop innovative approaches to scaling pro bono work.  KIND partners with pro bono programs that already exist in major cities.  The goal is not to reinvent the wheel, but to grow capacity to fill unmet needs.  KIND fellows work in these groups to add expertise and connect clients with the thousands of pro bono lawyers who have now stepped forward.  Last year alone, these lawyers contributed time worth over $11 million, measured at their regular billing rates.

But for the children involved, the value of this work was literally priceless.  In some cases, the ability to stay in the United States literally saved the life of a child.  In many other cases, it transformed their future.

Ultimately, this is an important part of what pro bono work is all about.  The lawyers don’t get paid for their time.  But they are rewarded in ways that money cannot buy.

Brad Smith is Microsoft's general counsel and executive vice president.