pro bono at Scrooge & Scrooge LLP

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New York Law Journal columnists Lisa Bebchick and Elana F. Sinensky are right, the Holiday Season is a good time for lawyers and law firms to be thinking about “The gift of pro bono” (Dec. 1, 2006).   The term “pro bono” is short for the Latin phrase meaning “for the public good.”

dictionaryG Although some lawyer groups have tried to stretch its meaning (see pro bono publico relations, at f/k/a), “pro bono” activity has traditionally meant “legal services rendered to poor persons or to public interest organizations dedicated to serving poor persons . . . or improving the availability or quality of legal services to such persons.”  Those who believe that self-help law is the most practical or efficient way to assure “justice for all” also consider services related to “simplifying the legal process for poor persons,” or to helping them to present their cases in court without (or with limited) lawyer assistance, to be solidly within the meaning of pro bono.  In addition, some would include in the definition of pro bono volunteer legal assistance to “organizations involved in social causes such as environmental, consumer, minority, youth, battered women and education organizations and charities” (while others might retort that one person’s “public interest” or reform cause can be viewed by another as simply politics, pet projects or pro malo publico).

Whatever your definition of pro bono legal services, there has been good news recently for anyone wanting to see an increase in such activities.  For example, Robert Ambrogi pointed last week to the article “Pro Bono Net Unveils New Pro Bono Manager Software” (probono.NetNews, Nov. 2006).  In it, Adam Licht, Pro Bono Net’s Director of Product Management, reports on the Gates Foundation funded initiative to develop a web-based platform (expected to be operational in early 2007) that will help law firms better manage and promote their pro bono work.   Similarly, the NYC Pro Bono Center was launched online recently.  As explained in the probono.NetNews article “NYC Pro Bono Center Makes Volunteering Easier Than Ever” (Nov. 2006), the website provides a full range of targeted support to young associates interested in volunteering (from info on organizations, to training and practice manuals). 

A Christmas Carol (1984) (with George C. Scott)  ScroogeScott 

If things are going so well, you might ask why this post mentions the fictitious law firm Scrooge & Scrooge in its title.   The first (and obvious) reason is to identify law firms that do not have an active pro bono “program” (including solos and other micros) with the character Ebenezer Scrooge, from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  The miser Scrooge is not only oblivious to the suffering of the poor.  His greed also affects the work environment of his employee Bob Cratchit, who clearly is on the verge of burnout as the story begins. (see Arnie Herz’s “The new law firm environmentalist,” at legal sanity weblog, and the article New York Magazine article, “Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” Dec. 4, 2006; via Legal Blog Watch)

But, I’ve also mentioned both Scrooge and Scrooge, because I’m wondering which Scrooge is behind the push within law firms to increase pro bono activities — is it the pre-enlightened Scrooge? or the loving, generous Scrooge after he’s been visited by the Three Angels?  (Or, more aptly, what combination of the two is it?)  The question came to mind because there seems to be such a great deal of effort to convince law firms that pro bono will somehow be good for their bottom line. 

For example, Pro Bono Net’s Adam Licht states in the article mentioned above on Pro Bono Manager software that:

ScroogedMurray “But today, many firms now also view pro bono work as a means to achieve core business objectives, including boosting marketing and brand-building efforts; helping firms stand out in a competitive market; providing valuable training to younger associates; and as a tool for recruitment and retention.”  [image from Scrooged, 1998, with Dan Murray]

Similarly, even the admirable Model Law Firm Pro Bono Policy (from the New York State Bar Association) has the law firm stating that pro bono has benefits for the law firm and individual attorneys.  Beyond professional development and demonstrating commitment to their community, the Model Policy statement notes pro bono “can help develop individual and corporate clients.”

Bebchick and Sinensky (litigation associates at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson) spend virtually the entire article “The gift of pro bono” explaining the benefits of pro bono for the individual law firm associate.  The thrust is the opportunity to learn and hone skills that are not nurtured in newbie lawyers at large firms, but are nonetheless important to the practice of law.  The promised result is

“By committing to pro bono service, an associate will become a better lawyer as well as a more valued member of the firm for which he works, and feel good while doing it.”  

B&S dangle the usual carrot of litigation experience for pro bono volunteers, whether it be oral argument for a criminal client, or drafting “discovery requests and subpoenas” and “prepar[ing] witnesses for hearings and question[ing] these witnesses (and others) at a court hearing,” when the associate represents a client in her petitions for divorce and child and spousal support.  They suggest:  “One never knows where the representation of a pro bono client can lead; today’s pro bono organizational client may be the board on which one sits in a few years.”

ScroogeScott Of course, it is a cliche to say that volunteer work can be more rewarding for the volunteer than for the person helped. (see “What’s in it for me?“, BBC News Magazine, May 20, 2005), which begins “As befits the me-me-me age we live in, . . .  volunteering can be good for the CV, the waistline – even the love life.”  And, those being helped probably won’t be choosey when it comes to the motivations of their Gift Horse. 

Nonetheless, I’m a little wary of pro bono as marketing or branding tool for a firm, or as development program and burnout protection for associates.  Yes, “something in it for me” surely means more volunteer work now, but what happens when the ulterior (or secondary) motives don’t pan out?  How will the firm react when there are no noticeable marketplace benefits, nor nearterm recruitment or retention advantages?   What happens to the associate when he or she learns just how humdrum the legal problems of the average person can be: important for the individual and her or his family, but not often presenting particularly challenging or interesting legal issues, and not necessarily honing skills useful in corporate or boutique practice?

NoSanta    Will the firm become less supportive of pro bono, when volunteer work gets in the way of a paying client’s needs?  Will the associate pining for litigation experience force a family court matter to trial, even when (like most matters relating to custody, visitation, support) it can and should be resolved through negotiation or mediation?  Will the failure of pro bono to “achieve core business objectives” cause initial enthusiasm to dwindle, so that partners who were willing to abide pro bono aspirations and programs, withdraw their support, when having such programs no longer yields any comparative marketplace advantage in their follow-the-leader profession?

I don’t want to be the Grinch who steals all the warm holiday pro bono fuzzies.   Nonetheless, just as our society ruined the Holiday Spirit of this season by turning it into a season of Holiday Sales, we should fear losing the true spirit at the heart of pro bono service — professional obligation and shared community.  It should be enough to feel good about doing good.  If there happen to be other professional or business benefits, let’s be grateful, and then do a little more pro bono.

2 Comments

  1. Carolyn Elefant

    December 8, 2006 @ 11:38 am

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    Hi David,

    You’re not being a Grinch, but speaking the truth. The issue of whether firms should use pro bono to promote business objectives is dear to my heart, having written an article about this – Can Law Firms Do Pro Bono? A Skeptical View of Law Firms’ Pro. Bono Programs, 16 J. L. EGAL. P. ROF . 95, 102 (1991) I came to exactly the same conclusion that you did in your second to last paragraph. SHLP is turning into a terrific blog, by the way.

    Carolyn

  2. david giacalone

    December 9, 2006 @ 10:56 pm

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    Hello, Carolyn. It’s is always great to have a concurring opinion from you. Thanks for your kind words about shlep.