Pro Bono

15Jan07

I think the local pro bono coordinator is out to get me. We have a central clearinghouse for cases that LSC can’t take that get farmed out to lawyers willing to do pro-bono. The coordinator is a really nice woman, but I swear to God, I keep getting the most obnoxious cases. The ones that should take two days and take TWO YEARS, or the ones that are on such a bizarre topic that nobody has any idea what it’s about (she has it in her head that I “like those kinds of cases” and saves them for me special), or the ones that get assigned to the worst judge in the circuit.

There’s a real push-pull on the whole issue, because the state bar is real big on attorneys doing pro bono hours, and we all have to report to the bar every year how many we’ve done. It’s not mandatory, though they keep batting around the idea of MAKING it mandatory, then deciding it would probably be unconstitutional to do so. Anyway, we’re constantly excoriated by the state bar, the local bar, local judges, and senior attorneys in PUBLIC to do more pro bono.

Close the office door, however, and Mr. Senior Attorney is telling you to quit fucking around with that pro bono case and bill some fucking hours already. I know of one firm that pushes tons of pro bono cases off on associates they intend to fire. That way they can report that they did a ridiculous number of pro bono hours every year, and fire all their unwanted associates for “failing to bill enough hours.”

Law firms don’t do “lay offs” becuase that’s a signal that the market is bad or your firm has miscalculated or you’re losing business, and apparently that’s a shameful thing. So law firms do really sleazy things so they can legitimately “fire” for cause attorneys they need to let go because of a general market contraction or loss of a major client (or poor planning or senior partners wanting more money). Try finding another job after you’ve been fired for being shitty at your last one — and they stick by that story like glue, because they don’t want you suing them.

Anyway, this one firm uses pro bono hours to fire associates it wants to get rid of. (It overhires associates as cheap labor and then fires most of them so they don’t have to promote them to higher salary levels.) Other firms just publicly encourage their associates to do pro bono and privately forbid it. One local firm, that I’m sort-of jealous of, flat-out tells its associates not to do pro bono and says publicly that they do not take time away from billing to do pro bono. At least they’re HONEST about it. Some of the associates there say they wish they COULD do pro bono, but that’s only because they’ve never worked at a firm that mandates pro bono hours and then penalizes you for doing them.

The whole thing makes me confused about whether I want to be a good person, because the professional penalties for doing so are so high. Somewhere deep in my gut there’s this good lawyer who says, “Equal access to the law is the cornestone of our democracy; lawyers MUST provide pro bono services for the system to have any credibility.” But on top of her there are like 12 layers going, “Oh my God, I need more hours.” “Oh my God, if I do pro bono I’ll get reprimanded for my billing rates being too low.” “Oh my God, I drew Judge Jerk again. Why, God, why?”

I have a vivid little play in my mind that summarizes the whole thing and goes on every year in some variation on this basic theme: Every year we have this big bar dinner where we all dress up pretty in evening clothes and go drink and schmooze and congratulate ourselves on protecting and promoting American democracy and our great system of equal justice under law. This INVARIABLY includes a grand old statesman of the local bar community giving a speech about the crucial importance of pro bono service by all the lawyers in our community. (Sometimes it also includes an actual local politician talking about the importance of law and service, usually shortly before he gets indicted.) And then, the next morning, we hear from young associates in his firm that Mr. Pro Bono Speechmaker/Managing Partner told them at the Monday morning meeting that they’d better fucking get their hours and stop fucking around with pro bono cases because they were not making their fucking quotas.

All the right words. All the wrong actions. Seems like the entire profession, sometimes.

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