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.


One of the things I hate most about the “workplace” aspects of my job (the parts that aren’t confined to being a lawyer, but just the part where you have to go work somewhere) is sitting in my little white-walled box with a window.

So cubicles are worse. I worked in cubicles and hated it — I always felt like I feel in a crowded train station, where I’m just slightly too short to see where the hell I’m going, but I can hear all these interesting things going on. It was at once distracting and isolating.

But prior to this, I spent a lot of time working in open offices — newsrooms, charitable organizations — where all the desks are just in one big room. I found this energizing and interesting rather than distracting; there was always a lot going on, always someone to bounce and idea off of or shoot the shit with between bursts of work, always people laughing or bitching.

Now I sit in a white box that belongs to me, and has a window. This is supposed to be one of the perks of being a lawyer, a private office with actual walls (rather than a cubicle) and a WINDOW, the deepest longing of middle management, if popular culture is to be believed. Window offices mostly look at roofs, other office buildings, or parking structures, so the view isn’t all that exciting, but at least it is some actual natural light.

So I sit here in a small white room with a window all by myself for 10 hours a day. They do that with people in insane asylums, too, except in an insane asylum they give you things to play with. I’m supposed to be writing excruciatingly boring filings on matters nobody really gives a rat’s ass about.

Sometimes other law-office drones pop their heads in to get something from me or see if I need anything. Nurses in insane asylums either bring you good drugs or new toys. The best I get offered is coffee, which I don’t drink. But mostly I just sit there, in the quiet, pristine little office of my own being lonely.

The window doesn’t open — ever since air conditioning was invented, that’s no longer the old law for office buildings, that every person has to be no more than 30 feet from natural light and air. The walls are dull and just cheap office-building divider walls, so if we move they can renovate the office really fast, so they’re not real good at holding up pictures or anything. Not that I’ve gotten around to framing my plethora of diplomas and bar admissions anyway, the ones I’m supposed to hang behind my head to impress people. Who am I going to impress? Everyone else has them too, and it’s not like clients go into lawyer’s offices; that’s why there are conference rooms. I have no control over the temperature, and because of these big windows the lawyers’ offices get viciously hot in the summer with the sun beating in and brutally cold in the winter because they’re poorly insulated.

So here’s the workplace dream of American executives: I sit all alone and lonely in a little 225 sq. foot dull white box, listening to the electricity humming in the walls and the flourescents buzzing overhead, with a window that doesn’t open and looks at nothing and absolutely no control over the temperature of my office. Also, my door sticks.

Boy, America, I have it made.


I had court today, so of course I came down with a horrific cold over the weekend and went into court with a bright red nose, an aching ear, and a neck so stiff I couldn’t turn it. Driving to the courthouse was entertaining without being able to look side to side. I had to pull over and enjoy a rerun of breakfast.

As far as the actual hearing went, pretty painless. We were in and out in five minutes and got the order we wanted. Now all I have to do is focus on not puking until I can go home and lie down. Is not puking on a client file billable time? If I have to work despite being so sick I can barely crawl, it ought to be.

I was actually desperate to get to court today. They’re scheduling hearings four months out, so if I missed my reschedule wouldn’t have been until April, and I don’t like this client so much I want to be spending quality time with him until April. Runny nose and hacking cough be damned.

Part of me hopes I infected the entire courthouse just for spite. The rest of me liked the judge and hopes I didn’t give him a cold.


That’s really all you need to know here. I’m not talking bummed about life, I’m talking big honkin’ major clinical depression requiring daily medication to keep me a functional member of the human race.

This is not actually the law’s fault. They say that 1/3 of lawyers are depressed or having problems with addiction, mostly because of the law (compared to 1/10 of the general population). I was actually depressed long before I got to the law, diagnosed in my teens. But I did really well, on and off medication, until I got to law school.

I have not been off medication since.

I went to law school straight from college, which was probably an error in judgment, but I had a liberal arts degree. What else was I going to do?

So here I am, in my late 20s, married (no kids, yes pets), homeowner, practicing lawyer, and I’m so depressed I can barely get out of bed in the morning. Days I can work from home I don’t even bother to shower. I have no immune system because of the depression; a kid sneezes down the block and I catch a cold.

I live a block from an elementary school, so a lot of kids sneeze down the block.

I am constantly under the weather with some bug or another. I throw up from stress. I haven’t slept unmedicated in several months. I have pain in my teeth with no physical cause. I have recurrent infections that flare up every time I have to go to court, meaning I don’t think I’ve ever actually been to court without an earache. I am 60 pounds overweight, almost all of it since I started practicing law.

I can’t get out.

I practice in what’s called a “secondary market.” My husband and I are both graduates of a top-10 law school (that’s where we met), so this was a lifestyle choice for us after a couple years in an primary east-coast market. If we hadn’t moved to a secondary market, we’d probably be divorced, and I would probably be dead. I mean that literally. I like my secondary market — lawyers are more collegial, work knocks off at 5 unless you have major litigation, people leave early or schedule court around kids’ baseball games.

But the downside of my secondary market is that there aren’t a lot of options for getting OUT of the law. I have a mortgage and together we have over $100,000 in student loans, on a secondary market salary. There’s a lot of engineering, computer science, and medicine jobs to be had around here, but, again, liberal arts degree. I’ve searched desperately. Now I’m working half-time and freelancing at not-law things half-time, which helps, but I still lie there awake at night and think things like, “What kind of accident would get me a big enough tort settlement that I wouldn’t have to work as a lawyer, but wouldn’t be permanently debilitating?” or “Maybe if I got pregnant, I could quit.” I think the second thought is more normal.

I’m writing into the void because I have got to do something. Therapy, drugs, reduced work schedule is all very nice, but I’m still ridiculously depressed, and if I don’t vent this somewhere I’m going to go postal.

There are not a lot of resources out there for professionals with depression, and I think in a lot of ways it’s the expectations of the profession that traps me. If I’m open about my depression, will I still be able to get clients? Will employers want me? Do people trust a lawyer who goes home every night and sobs? If I called my local mental health agency which helps find employment for the mentally ill, would they laugh their asses off? I bet they would.

So here it is, a way for me to vent and think and suffer out loud. Don’t care if you read or not. Just gotta get it out.