Half Court Press

That law is a profession, not just a business, has long been a theme here, and I haven’t been shy about pounding that theme whenever possible.  And yet, I’m particularly wary when the theme is used in ways that blow beyond professionalism as a weapon against lawyers.

Aric Press, retiring from his 16 years as Editor in Chief of ALM (formerly American Lawyer Media), offered his parting thoughts in a paywalled post that was partially copied by Kevin O’Keefe.  Among his “lessons” learned while getting his ALM big guy paycheck was this:

Pro bono isn’t charity. I cringed recently when I heard a longtime public interest lawyer refer to pro bono work as what big-firm lawyers do so they’ll have something to put on their tombstones. I’m not that cynical. I think it’s work that lawyers do because they belong to a profession, and professions have obligations to the broader society in which they operate. Otherwise they don’t deserve the privilege of self-regulation and the honor of a special status in our courts. Part of the price for that status is serving those who can’t afford legal services. It’s a duty, in my view, but also an act of self-protection. With outside investment money beginning to slosh around the legal world, the question of bar regulation will be visited again in your futures. If you want to maintain the current framework, you have to pay the dues. It’s a profession, if you choose to keep it one.

Perhaps I’m taking this all wrong, and Aric meant his words only to apply to biglaw.  After all, only Biglaw seems to fascinate ALM, so it’s quite possible that Aric doesn’t know the rest of us exist. Or if he does, he just doesn’t care.  And if this quote applies only to Biglaw, then I couldn’t care less. Biglaw can fight its own battles.

But assuming Aric hasn’t forgotten that the legal profession isn’t comprised solely of Biglaw, what is he saying?  Lawyers have a duty, as the price of being worthy of being a professional, to give of their time and advice to those who can’t afford legal services.  This is not, in itself, a particularly controversial sentiment, though it galls me a bit for someone who enjoys feeding off lawyers to say so when he doesn’t pay the price himself. When was the last time Aric represented an indigent person?  Hell, has Aric ever given his time away for free to anyone?

The concept of pro bono has become increasingly fuzzy these days. I filled out my New York State attorney registration form a few weeks ago, and it asked how many hours of pro bono I performed.  Does this blawg count as pro bono? Does the time spent answering questions from the thousand callers who can’t afford a lawyer count? What about the CLE lectures, or conference presentations?  Worse still, what of the clients who said they could pay, but couldn’t?

Then there was the good guy, a person I thought deserved better legal care than he could afford, who I represented just because I chose to.  That was certainly pro bono, but then, I didn’t do it because I felt some duty to the profession, but rather a duty to use my abilities to help another human being because I could, and more importantly, I chose to do so.

Can someone call me and demand that I defend them pro bono?  What if they inform me that it’s my duty, because as Aric says, we have a duty to do pro bono?  Can that same person call up a partner at Biglaw and make that demand?  I somehow find it impossible to imagine that a Biglaw partner will take a random phone call from someone who can’t afford counsel because he “just has a question.”  Yet, solo lawyers do this all the time.

I have a problem with Aric Press informing lawyers about our duty.  Not that we should do pro bono, as we do so constantly, but that unlike Biglaw, unlike lawyers who get paychecks without practicing, we do so on our own dime.  We do so because we help people. We do so constantly.

We don’t get paid while doing so, as part of some pro bono program that firms can use to give their lawyers a chance to actually see a courtroom, or practice on the poor so they will have minimal competence when their work is needed for paying clients.  We don’t send out press releases about how we’re great humanitarians, helping the poor and downtrodden between billion dollar mergers and acquisitions.

There are people who need, but can’t afford, legal services. Part of the problem is the growing infusion of law in ordinary life, creating a need that society can’t fill. Aric doesn’t have anything to say about that.  Another part of the problem is that the larger society looks to law as an easy way to regulate its annoyances, but doesn’t want to cover the price of its mandates.  Aric doesn’t mention that either.  If non-lawyers are busy demanding laws to harass each other, does that make it lawyers’ problem to fix by giving our services away for free?

Lawyers aren’t the butt-boys for every regulatory brainstorm that others create to make their world happier.  Yet, guys like Aric Press wrap up our professional duty in a pretty ribbon to promote the notion that we, the lawyers, are sitting around, fat and wealthy, and can certainly spare a few thousand hours as the cost of being such fabulous professionals.

Sure, we should do pro bono.  We are enormously fortunate to find ourselves in the position of being able to help others, to bear the honor of being lawyers.  But we do so out of a generosity of spirit and a desire to help our fellow man, not as a cost of doing business.  And no one who hasn’t given anything of himself except to tell us how we should give has the authority to tell us what our duty is.

If Aric Press believes what he says, let him go into the trenches and lead by example.  And if he was only talking to Biglaw types, the ones who get to do pro bono while enjoying a paycheck on direct deposit, then please make it clear that you aren’t talking about the lawyers who know what their duty is, do it constantly, and suffer the grandiosity of pundits’ simplistic pronouncements.  Don’t insult those of us who carry the weight if you’re only talking about the other half.

15 thoughts on “Half Court Press

  1. Marc R

    Exactly! How many of us let our clients slide on payments or help prospective clients solely because we don’t feel the prosecutor should get a guilty plea on a crime not conceivably committed, or because a landlord has no right denying a family their security deposit who scrubbed and repainted a perfectly fine apartment before vacating, or the harassing debt collection firm suing the victims of identity theft or those who don’t even share the alleged debtor’s name? I do pro bono because I put myself in their shoes and know I can help, not because of some bar association recommendation. Legal aid says pre addressed envelopes asking for $500 and every year instead I walk over to the it office and request some case files. How many people in biglaw do that? None down here, that’s for sure. But they get the legal aid awards and claim the pro bono bar prizes for themselves. I don’t care. I’ll keep doing the cases for free that I want because I want to and feel I owe it to society. I’ll never win a prize or see my name in a bar journal but I see my client’s eyes and get their holiday cards and know that I’m doing my part just fine. Those in biglaw need the reminders I guess.

    1. SHG Post author

      A prize? Trench lawyers don’t win prizes. And that’s particularly true when it comes to media like ALM, which reserves its precious real estate to kiss the ass of “important” lawyers, as opposed to the ones who do the work day in and out without anybody other than themselves and their clients realizing it.

  2. Kathleen Casey

    When I send in my registration form this year I plan on scribbling in, “I don’t know.” It will be the truth.

    1. SHG Post author

      I couldn’t decide whether to put in 10 or a 1000. Since I swore to its accuracy, I chose “shit tons.”

      1. Kathleen Casey

        I suppose we could escalate it. I could add “We are an Empress. This is not pro bono. It is noblesse oblige.”

  3. KMP

    I have no professional experience with the law, but I have extensive history working with the self-regulating institutions for American physicians. My initial read of the quote regarding pro bono work was through the justification for self-regulation lens. I would not be surprised to learn that the quoted attorney was a member of the bar or other professional self-regulating bodies. Members of such groups are particularly sensitive to arguments that their profession has special characteristics (unlike truck drivers and hair stylists) which uniquely qualify them self-regulation instead of state regulation. Physicians point to their specialized scientific knowledge and experience, which is less common in bureacratic regulatory circles. The same can’t be said to the same extent for the law.

    1. SHG Post author


      Physicians point to their specialized scientific knowledge and experience, which is less common in bureacratic regulatory circles. The same can’t be said to the same extent for the law.

      So you have no clue what you’re talking about when it comes to law, yet think that qualifies you to make such an inane assertion. Wonderful. I’ve represented numerous physicians, and though they think themselves quite brilliant on all subjects, their grasp of law is nightmarishly dangerous. That’s why they needed my representation.

      1. KMP

        SHG: You are correct that I don’t know about the law, but that was not the point of my comment. I’ll restate:

        [Ed. Note: Balance deleted as off-topic.]

        1. SHG Post author

          If this was a post about the merit of professional self-regulation, your second comment (in which you eliminated the most egregious silliness of your first) would have been better. But it’s not. In fact, this post has nothing whatsoever to do with attorney self-regulation, as the bar merely collects data, but does not mandate or regulate, pro bono. So now we’re at doubly off-topic.

          That said, your argument was still shallow and unworthy of a first comment, no less a second lengthier one to explain the first. No more.

          1. Sgt. Schultz

            And as you stated clearly (for the non-lawyers who didn’t know), Press was editor at ALM, not a practicing lawyer no less involved in attorney regulation. KMP wanted to talk about attorney regulation, and nothing was going to stop him.

            Another strike against letting non-lawyers comment.

  4. AP

    “Perhaps I’m taking this all wrong, and Aric meant his words only to apply to biglaw.”

    According to Kevin O’Keefe, the post was titled “Big Law and Me”. There may be a hint in there somewhere.

    1. SHG Post author

      While Aric was writing for his Biglaw audience, he wasn’t writing about Biglaw lawyers per se, but about lawyers in general. There may not be a hint in there at all. Don’t conflate the title with the message. The message, as written, applied to everyone, even if Aric only cares about Biglaw eyeballs.

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