This Press Release (PR Newswire 8/4/05) proudly proclaims that “for the first time in the history of bioethics, a major global law firm, (that would be Milbank, Tweed) makes its legal resources available, pro bono publico, for the analysis of biotechnology and its impact on women.” The release goes on to describe that Milbank will be providing a range of pro bono legal services to the Women’s Bioethics Project, a Seattle-based non-profit and non-partisan think tank. Milbank services will include legal research, analysis, and counsel on a wide range of bioethics issues, including women’s health, reproductive technologies, and the emerging field of neuro-ethics.
You can correct me if I’m wrong – but I just don’t see how this is pro bono. Rather, it sounds more like a marketing idea (and a clever one at that) to bone up on hot issues while working for a well respected entity like the Women’s bioethics project and to make contacts in the potentially lucrative bioethics field. The only pro bono element to this project, as far as I can tell, is that Milbank won’t get paid…in the near term.
For the past few months, I’ve been working on a similar concept – creating a trade association to serve the ocean renewable energy industry. Almost all of the lobbying and legal work I’ve done for the group in the past has been free, but I’m hoping it will eventually convert to billable work, as our membership roster grows or as others in the industry who’ve come to know me through my work decide to retain me. But I don’t consider my work even remotely pro bono, even though ocean renewables are environmentally benign technologies and thus, have a “public interest” type of component.
I’m not saying that firms like Milbank shouldn’t do what it’s doing. As I’ve learned from my own trade association experience, uncompensated legal work can serve as a great marketing tool (as long as you don’t get too carried away and sacrifice billable work!) But uncompensated work for non indigent clients which has the potential to lead to a lucrative practice area is plainly and simply, marketing. It’s not pro bono.