Judge attacks pro bono work

October 23, 2008
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Update: The Wall Street Journal Law Blog has an entry today with excerpts of the 2nd Circuit Chief Judge Dennis Jacobs' speech regarding pro bono work. The chief judge defends his speech, saying the National Law Journal article "grossly misstates" what the judge said and thinks. A link to the full text of the speech can also be found at the WSJ law blog.

 I'm glad the chief judge's statements seem to have been miscontrued or taken out of context, because I couldn't fathom how a person in his position in the legal community could speak so negatively about pro bono work.  

When I think of the pro bono work attorneys do, the words “anti-social” and “self-serving” don’t come to mind. But that’s how the chief judge of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals described pro bono work.

Many of Chief Judge Dennis Jacobs’ comments have been posted online, easily found by searching his name plus “pro bono.” Some other highlights from the chief judge’s speech in New York earlier this month include his belief that pro bono work is being used as a tool by law firms to recruit, and non-profits use it to further a political agenda.

When I heard the “self-serving” comment, it made me think back to an episode of “Friends” in which two of the characters were debating whether there are any selfless good deeds. The argument can be made that doing pro bono work, or any volunteer work, can make those volunteering feel good that they are making a difference in their community or others’ lives. A lot of people enjoy helping others, not to further their own agenda, but because they like to see the results of their volunteer work – whether it’s a client winning their case or being treated fairly, or seeing a house built for a previously homeless family. But to call it “self-serving” is a stretch.

I know attorneys are encouraged by their firms do perform pro bono work, but many lawyers would do it without firm encouragement. Some even want to do more but those tricky billable hours keep getting in the way.

What I don’t understand is why someone in the chief judge’s position, a person who is influential in his legal community, would come out and denigrate pro bono work. He’s entitled to his opinion, and I’m sure there are others out there who feel similar to him, but to come out and say it in the way he did could have a negative impact on the legal community’s impression of pro bono work.

Lawyers fresh out of law school may hear his comments and believe pro bono work isn’t as important as firms or other attorneys say it is. Attorneys doing pro bono work now may feel attacked or underappreciated for their work, and in a worse-case scenario just stop volunteering.

No one should be made to feel like they have to volunteer, but attorneys learn either in school, through their firm, or other attorneys that pro bono work is important for their communities. There are many people out there who need help because they have been wrongfully convicted, a victim of domestic violence, or their home is being taken away and they don’t understand why. Those who are able to devote time to pro bono work should be able to do so without the “anti-social” and “self-serving” comments hanging over them.
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