Last Saturday, the Washington Post published this op-ed piece, Pro Bono: A Better Alternative by Joel Sheptow, a Stanford Law student who’s participating in a student project that provides pro bono service. Based on his experience, Sheptow proposes that rather than refer pro bono matters to already over-worked large firm associates, the bar should encourage them to give money to fund legal aid programs. It’s an idea that I endorse, though not particularly new; I wrote an almost identical piece entitled “Just Give Money” that appeared in American Lawyer in January 1993 (yes, I go back a long way with ALM).
Predictably, the idea of money in lieu of pro bono is no more popular now then it was back then when I wrote on it. In today’s post, Esther Lardent of the biglaw funded Pro Bono Institute responded with this Letter to the Editor boasting about the major firms’ contribution of 3 million hours of pro bono service and conclusions that “pro bono is not an inefficient response to [the] dismal reality” that the U.S. provides inadequate funding for civil legal services. What Lardent doesn’t mention in her letter is that if large firms stopped running pro bono services, she’d be out of a job, because the Pro Bono Institute provides consulting services and support to biglaw pro bono projects.
But what Lardent and the bar don’t stop to think about are the results. Because as I posted here
this past summer in spite of reports that law firms purportedly provide
20 million hours in pro bono service (that’s $ 4 billion annually at a
paltry $200 an hour billing rate), the need for lawyers for those of
lesser means persists. Four billion dollars could pay for an awful lot
of legal aid attorneys or even to subsidize small firms and solos to
provide services at reduced rates to those who can’t afford to pay.
But I guess that people like Esther Lardent would prefer to spend money to keep themselves employed and make biglaw firms look and feel good
instead of using it to make a real difference.