My suggestion was to do the case for free, make sure you beat it and not find yourself in the situation where you're beholding to the acquaintance over a few bucks. "She'll make your life miserable," I told him, "but if you do it for free, she'll be beholden to you and you can control her." His thought was exactly the opposite, that if she was going to make him miserable, he wanted to be paid well for the privilege. Why, he wondered, should he endure her for free?
Rob Fickman wrote in a comment to a post by Mark Bennett that criminal defense lawyers probably do far more pro bono work than any other type of lawyer.
I am always amused by the big civil firms giving Themselves a nice pat on the back for their pro bono work. They have a plaque up in each court house here congratulating themselves. Maybe the average diligent civil lawyer does 100 hours a year of pro bono work. The Bar thinks we should keep records of our pro bono time. The civil can keep track because it’s a relatively small amount of time.
The average diligent Criminal defense lawyer easily does 250 hours of pro bono work a year. We do not need to keep track or give ourselves bowling trophies.
It's largely true, but there is an element to it that concerns me. We see something wrong and want to help right it. It tends to be our nature, and gives rise to much of the frustration we feel toward the system and its players. But it's an impulse, a desire, that needs to be tempered and controlled, as Bennett explains:
When I take a pro bono case, it’s not because the client wants me but because I see a likely payoff in it for me—never money nor publicity, but a good story or entertainment or education or just the satisfaction of demonstrating that not all lawyers suck and making a difference that nobody else would make in a human being’s life.
No, I’m no hero. I’m just like any other junkie, except that my drug often makes other people’s lives better.
We don't get a lot of satisfaction in this line of work, and take it where we can. At the same time, reach into the wrong case and it can suck the life out of you, ultimately ending in misery.
Most blawgers get unsolicited emails from people who seek our pro bono assistance. Most of the time, the emails are incomprehensible pleas with unreasonable requests that fail to persuade us that there is either a grave injustice or that anything can be done to help. Defendants have a tendency to view grave injustices differently than lawyers, and their request that we fly across the country to meet with them in prison to hear their story asks too much.
There are instances, such as the story related by Bruce Godfrey in this comment, that reflect how a lawyer helped someone at the cost of five minutes of his life. I suspect every half-decent criminal defense lawyer has a similar story, and (thankfully) chose not to tell it. We don't do it for the kudos, but because it was staring us in the face and, well, cost us nothing to fix.
But a phrase haunts me from my wayward youth. No one will buy the cow if you give the milk away for free. The context was different, but the message remains the same. The culture is shifting toward the belief that we do this for love, for "justice," rather than for a living. When I go the grocery store, they charge me for the gallon of milk and bag of barbecue Doritos. I've yet to have a cashier say, "Oh no, you're a criminal defense lawyer, so we want you to have these groceries for free as a 'thank you' for all you've done."
This is a discussion I've had of late with Ken at Popehat, who has taken up arms against the "censorious asshats" who threaten free speech online. He sends out the Popehat signal seeking pro bono counsel for maligned bloggers. He writes letters. He does this because he feels it's the right thing to do. He does this for free. Ken is a mensch.
But in a number of these situations, there was ample opportunity for others to contribute to the cause. In one instance, Ken's largesse was woven into an abusive political narrative to show how conservatives were the righteous victims of liberals. In another, there were two million claimed supporters of the cause. There was nothing to stop the two million from each contributing $1 to the cause that was so dear to them, and yet they heaped only praise.
There are for-profit websites like Avvo whose business model is based on creating the belief that lawyers exist to give free (and often wrong) advise to anyone who asks. The purported give-back is that if you give enough free advise, someone will hire you when they really need a lawyer.
One of the recurring themes at the Lawyerist is that there is no shame in asking to be paid for your services. That lawyers will jump in to help by providing pro bono services when they feel it's appropriate, when they feel they can help, when the circumstances warrant, will never change. It was that way long before there was an internet to tell the world about it, and will continue because that's who we are.
But no, dear potential pro bono client. Lawyers are not a special breed of
aesthetic ascetic who have taken an oath of poverty and dedicated their lives to your cause without compensation. To the extent all this talk promotes a different notion, it's wrong. Just like you, we work for a living. Just like you, we have bills to pay and mouths to feed. We may be singularly charitable by nature, but that doesn't mean we exist at your beck and call. And if kindness is a two-way street, then don't try to exploit our charitable nature when you have as much ability to carry the weight as we do.
If you're dying of thirst, we may give you free milk. But we make our living off of selling cows. Please don't forget that.