Why is it that when small firm attorneys represent court appointed indigents at rates equivalent to one third of market that the work is not classified as “pro bono,” but when a large firm takes a bath on fees for representing the former governor of Illinois, an ABA committee chair recognizes that as pro bono? Why is it that when a solo lawyer runs a blog on some aspect of legal practice that provides first rate substantive information at no cost (as in here or here or here to name a few of dozens of examples) it’s called marketing, but when a large firm provides substantive information at no cost, it’s deemed pro bono?
You might ask, “what’s in a name?” and why it matters whether we classify some free work as pro bono or not. Well, here’s why it’s so significant. Every so often, various state bar associations float the idea of mandatory pro bono requirements. Like many solos, I’m opposed to this requirement because I believe that it’s more of a burden for solos to meet than our biglaw counterparts. But even more, I’m concerned that large firms will be able to meet pro bono requirements by classifying as pro bono efforts such as free representation of well known politicians or work on cutting edge issues for high profile non-profits. This would mean that large firms could meet pro bono obligations by handling matters that they’d handle anyway for publicity or marketing purposes, while solos who are frequently stiffed by poor clients or accept cases at low costs would be required to take on even more non-fee matters to meet pro bono requirements.
We live in a country where the legal needs of the poor and lower middle class still go unmet. Representing a famous politician or doing work for free to gain entre into a new market don’t address those needs that many solos help to meet every day of their practices.