Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Pro Fucko Publico

[M]ore people are struggling financially; more people need legal services to cope with foreclosures, evictions and credit and employment problems that could push them into long-term poverty; and state and federal financing for legal services has plunged.
So writes Anne Barnard in the Times.  She's right. 
And it's not just those civil cases where people need lawyers but have no formal right to them.  The criminally accused have a right to counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, but that right is too often barely met if at all.
We're a nation vastly overlawyered with thousands of new lawyers each year, many of them saddled with nearly insurmountable debt and no jobs.  Yet there's a deep and ever-increasing pool of folks who desperately need but cannot obtain legal services.
There's something wrong with this picture.
Courts encourage lawyers to take on cases pro bono to help out.  Bar associations encourage lawyers to take on cases pro bono to help out.  The big law firms have pro bono departments to help out.  And, of course, lots of lawyers take cases pro bono because it's the right thing to do.* 
Here and there around the country there's a mandatory pro bono program of one sort or another. And in many places (Barnard mentions New Jersey and we've previously encountered New Orleans but it happens in many places and many ways), lawyers are sometimes conscripted for cases.
But it's not nearly enough.
Enter New York's Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman who made it public yesterday.  As Barnard reports, beginning in 2013,
The approximately 10,000 lawyers who apply to the New York State Bar each year will have to demonstrate that they have performed 50 hours of pro bono work to be admitted, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said. He said the move was intended to provide about a half-million hours of badly needed legal services to those with urgent problems, like foreclosure and domestic violence.
Carolyn Elefant says this is terrible.
There’s so much wrong with this proposal that I scarcely know where to start. But given that law students are graduating deeply in debt, shouldn’t they focus on paying work – even if it’s at a Starbucks or pizza parlor – rather than working for free. Moreover, if students or new grads are going to work for free and haven’t yet found a job, isn’t it more sensible for them to spend their time finding paying work than doing pro bono?
I'm a bit confused by that last sentence but she's on to something.  Lippman says it's just a week, but when you have no money and no prospects, well
And I'd note the irony that the requirement that the 1% perform pro bono (because the 99% don't do enough of it ) was announced on a day when the Occupiers were marching and clamoring.  Carolyn didn't make that particular observation, but she did note the broader irony.
As a New York licensed lawyer myself, I am outraged and offended that wealthy lawyers are passing the buck to those just starting out.
But it was in response to a comment by Karen Eichman that Carolyn got to the real point.  Eichman wrote:
What kind of pro-bono work is a new graduate required to perform in order to obtain admission? I would think they cannot do pro-bono legal work, as doing so would be practicing law without a license.
To which Carolyn responded:
Good point. Maybe NY thinks that the poor don't need licensed lawyers.
The already licensed will happily ensure that the unwashed unlicensed lawyers do the work of licensed lawyers brilliantly, carefully overseeing the half million hours a year performed by those 10,000 would-be lawyers.  The Times makes that clear in an editorial.
 Like many states, New York allows law students to perform legal work under the supervision of faculty members or legal services groups.
You'll excuse me if I'm not sanguine.
Look, there's a desperate need for lawyers to provide legal assistance to the poor.  It's a need that we, as a society, are demonstrably unwilling to meet if it requires actual resources.  It's a need that we, as lawyers, are either incapable or unwilling to meet.  
It's a need for lawyers, for people who know what they're doing (one wishes all lawyers did), for people who care about what they're doing (one wishes all lawyers did), and for people who are, well, lawyers.
Pro bono publico  is Latin.
It means, "For the public good."
Which is sometimes expressed, though not, as it happens by Marie Antoinette, as "Let them eat cake."

*There is, of course, a PR element to all (or at least much) of this, too, of course: See, lawyers aren't sleazy.  We're noble.  Look at all we do for the needy.  And you think we're only out to line our pockets.  Hah!  We'd starve ourselves for the public good.


  1. So how long does it take to actually bill 50 hours?

    As far as the debt argument, I don't agree with you. These people want to be lawyers and they went in debt to do it. No one coerced them into law school; they made that mistake all on their own. Now they can live on $23 a week until they get that big civil class action suit that's going to keep their woman in high heels for the next 30 years.

    Prada, sweetheart. Prada.

    I'm not buying into this one very well, Jeff. You people in the legal system put this nightmare together, you people are the ones refusing to take it apart. You people can suffer for it. Trials take years to get in front of a bench, judges refuse to dismiss cases that should never have made it past a prosecutor's round file and lawyers create documents that exceed one thousand lines and call them briefs - and they ain't referring to their jockey shorts, pal. Then these same legal beagles try to get evidence thrown out, eye witnesses discredited and cite references to court decisions that go back over one hundred years which they talk about like it was yesterday.

    No. You busted it, you fix it. And if fixing it means you put in an extra 80 hours a week for which you won't get paid, just think about that big, fat civil case that's going to pay for next year's Porsche.

    1. I don't think the mess was entirely made by lawyers, but it's surely true that lawyers have to be the ones primarily responsible for fixing it. Except they shouldn't do that on the backs of the clients - or through the forced labor of those who hope someday to become lawyers (which tends to dump the problem onto the backs of the clients).

    2. Really? You're going with "You people"? Eat a dick. I've got plenty of problems with our legal system, but as a graduating law student (who has done manual labor the entire time in order to keep my debt down - and is grateful that I even had that opportunity), myself and many of my colleagues took on this debt in order to try and help people, and we are frustrated with a system which demands pro bono work from beginning lawyers instead of advocating policy that would help fund legal services for the poor. So that, you know, the poor get EFFECTIVE lawyers, and those lawyers can make a goddamn living. Not tons of money, but a living. I forgot, as lawyers, us people shouldn't demand a living.

  2. As a soon-to-be newly minted lawyer, I have another idea: How about an incentive such as government subsidized malpractice insurance for those who do pro-bono work? Or a reduction in student loan debt for those who do enough pro-bono work? I think many lawyers just starting out (and who don't have jobs) are LOOKING for cases and clients. These types of incentives would help.


  4. Yeah, but if you reasonably doubt that the already licensed will carefully oversee the pro bono work of the unwashed unlicensed lawyers, what makes you think those same already licensed lawyers will carefully and happily perform the needed pro bono work themselves? I'd assume there's some kind of accountability built in to these kind of arrangements, so that if the unwashed unlicensed lawyer totally screws up the licensed lawyer supervising him is also on the hook.