Battered women who fear for their safety, mothers unable to support their children, dysfunctional families in need. A reality for many women is the presence of domestic violence in their lives. This situation, although occurring in all social and economic levels, is much more obvious and has more serious consequences in low-income communities. Despite the fact that Panama has a law that condemns domestic violence, lack of resources, ignorance, gender inequality and other factors have prevented this ailment of society from affecting women who day in and day out fear for both their and their children’s physical and emotional safety.
Statistics gathered on domestic violence around the world are alarming. Many of these cases are never reported and the number of women living without the opportunity to speak their truth is increasing every day. Lack of access to justice and adequate legal aid keep these women in a cycle that prevents them from getting out of their situation.
In January 2007, to give a voice to these women, the Morgan & Morgan Group (MMG) creates the Community Legal Assistance Foundation (Fundalcom). This foundation, a project unique in its nature among law firms and private companies in Panama, is Morgan & Morgan´s emblem project, showcasing its commitment to the Global Compact of the United Nations. Its goal is to guide and represent, for free, in family processes and domestic violence cases, people whose income is less than $ 800.00 per month.
Many are the women who daily reach the Fundalcom offices hoping to find the advice they need and for so long thought was out of reach. For those who are part of this foundation the work being performed is invaluable. Belkis Rodriguez, a social worker, says: "The work done in Fundalcom, is difficult because of the direct contact with a population that has many different problems: legal, psychological, spiritual, economic etc. To be able to do this kind of work, one must be very committed and, above all, be humble and show humility to those who seek our help. "
Parallel to the legal advice program, Fundalcom offers workshops that aim to educate the population (especially women) in matters concerning the prevention of domestic violence. These workshops have the objective of training people who in turn can help promulgate the learned information.
The number of cases that daily reached Fundalcom was a wakeup call for the members of the Morgan & Morgan Group who realized that many people across the country lack the resources and facilities to access proper legal advice.
This reality and the fact that in 2011 Morgan & Morgan became the first Panamanian firm to subscribe to the Pro Bono Declaration of the Americas, an initiative promoted by "The Cyrus Vance Center for International Justice" gave birth to the idea of coordinating monthly Legal Counseling Open Houses, where attorneys from the firm could offer pro bono legal advice in poor communities around the country. It should be noted that the main objective of the Pro Bono Declaration of the Americas is to ensure access to justice to people in need through the commitment of American attorneys to invest an average of 20 pro bono hours per year.
Since Morgan & Morgan institutionalized this program, we have managed to add more than 600 pro bono hours with the active participation of 40 lawyers from the Group who have taken part in 16 fairs providing free legal advice to more than 200 people. At the same time, training on the prevention of domestic violence, healthy relationships and gender equity has been provided to nearly 250 people in several poor communities in various parts of the country. Over 80% of the participants have been women looking for guidance on family process issues, and to whom this initiative have allowed the privilege of receiving an excellent firsthand legal advice on matters relating to divorce, abuse, custody, alimony and domestic violence among others.
On the first year, the achievements of this pro bono practice have been inspiring. The testimony of the lawyers who have donated their free time taking it from their families, personal activities and moments of well-deserved rest reflect how special the satisfaction earned in return is. They all appreciate the great impact that pro bono work has had on their lives, both personal and professional. Fernando Alfaro, partner of the Morgan & Morgan Group, who to date has already participated in three legal fairs, says: "Part of the reason I became a lawyer was due to the possibility of helping society. I knew at some point in my career as a lawyer I was going to do some pro bono work. What I did not know was the huge impact that these "clients" would have on my life. During that first Open House, touring the community that we had been assigned to together with other colleagues of the firm, I realized how much help is needed. Offering legal advise to these people, who truly needed it, when they otherwise would not have had access to justice, gave me an amazing feeling. I met some exceptional people, most of them women, and I was able to do a wonderful job. Since that day I no longer feel that working on my day off is a drawback. Now I think it is an opportunity for not only learning, but also being an agent of change. It is experiences such as these that remind me of why I became a lawyer in the first place and make me understand the importance of pro bono work. " Alfaro is not the only one who feels this way. The associate attorney Kharla Aizpurúa says: "I think there is a sincere commitment of the Morgan & Morgan Group to innovate, develop and provide ways to give the opportunity to members of vulnerable communities the access to expert legal advise. Moreover, the Group’s attorneys have been given the opportunity to cover areas of law that are intrinsic to the human factor and become part of a larger project aimed at producing changes in people's lives. Our firm believes in the importance of looking after those in need, knowing only a life of abuse and to offer the opportunity to help them with the certainty of knowing and understanding that circumstances can be changed to welcome all opportunities that the future that can offer them and their children".
Thereby Morgan & Morgan is positioned as a Law Firm that is not only dedicated to the practice of law but also to community service. Corporate social responsibility, including pro bono practice, is part of Morgan & Morgan’s corporate culture since its foundation in 1923, distinguishing us by a leadership based on values and principles. Our lawyers are very aware that this profession not only has lucrative rewards measured in billable hours, but is also a vehicle to help and serve those who, for lack of resources, cannot aspire to adequate legal representation.
The legacy of Dr. Eduardo Morgan Alvarez, whose life was characterized by the concern of protecting the interests of the needy and helping them obtain a basic right such as the access to justice, has served as an example for all members of the Morgan & Morgan Group to continue this important work which is paramount in any organization that wishes to make a positive difference in the community to which it belongs.