Judge Posner Learns The Economics of Free

No doubt Judge Richard Posner left the Seventh Circuit with the best of intentions.

“About six months ago,” Judge Posner said, “I awoke from a slumber of 35 years.” He had suddenly realized, he said, that people without lawyers are mistreated by the legal system, and he wanted to do something about it.

How he managed to sleep through this for 35 years remains something of a mystery, although it might be best explained less as slumber and more as not giving a damn and just being annoyed by the zany antics of pro se litigants, but two things appeared to coincide. First, he realized that there were meritorious issues buried deep in the gibberish of pro se applications, and second, he was bored with his life and wasn’t getting any younger.

His answer, after alienating himself from his colleagues on the circuit, was to form the Posner Center For Justice for Pro Se’s. It sure sounds all justice-y, and the mission tugged at our collective heartstrings.

[Posner] spoke out against a legal system that’s managed to make access to legal counsel less and less affordable while simultaneously mounting more and more road blocks in front of people who just want a lifeline from the court system.

To help bridge the gap, Judge Posner set up the Posner Center For Justice for Pro Se’s to offer counseling for pro se litigants to give them at least a decent chance in court. The effort highlighted the access to justice crisis in this country in a way that only a football coach clerking for a local court while struggling to beat Army might challenge.

Forgive the undercurrent of childishness in this description and its self-indulgent links, as it was written by Joe Patrice. So how is this going for Judge Posner and the poor litigants who can’t afford legal counsel?


The Board of Directors of the Posner Center of Justice for Pro Se’s Nonprofit Corporation dissolved the Posner Center on July 23, 2019.

The stated reason for the Posner Center’s dissolution is that the Center was receiving many more requests for assistance from pro se litigants than it could handle. The mismatch was something on the order of 100 requests for assistance for every Center staff member.

Since the lawyers and non-lawyers of the Posner Center were assisting the pro se litigants free of charge, perhaps it was inevitable that the demand would greatly exceed the supply. Thus, this experiment in assisting pro se litigants with their ongoing court cases has sadly come to an end.

Demand exceeded supply? Who could have possibly seen that coming? It wasn’t just the “mismatch” of more people seeking free lawyers, but the crash of the passionate (as well as those who wanted to ride the passion train without a ticket) and the putting their money where their mouth was. The executive director of the center, Brian Vukadinovich (did he get a salary?), called it “self-serving” and “nonsense.

“Unfortunately there were lawyers involved in the Posner Center who were really not very interested in helping pro se’s but were more interested in having their names connected to the Posner Center for selfish reasons,” he said in an email. “[T]he problem was that most of the lawyers who signed up to be part of the Posner Center weren’t willing to actually help the pro se’s. As executive director I reached out to lawyers on a daily basis and asked them to help pro se’s with their requests for help and almost every one of them would come up with a ridiculous excuse to not provide help.”

Apparently, the “business model” of the Posner Center was to collect putatively woke lawyers who would give their time pro bono to the pro se’s, but when called upon to help, had a “ridiculous excuse” to refuse the request. Vukadinovich calls these lawyers “selfish.”

Were they selfish? Maybe. Some might cynically associate themselves with a “good cause” like the Posner Center to bolster their reputation as charitable and woke, creating the appearance of giving their time and attention to the poor and downtrodden without actually doing anything to help. It happens.

But “almost every one of them”? Is Vukadinovich saying that the Posner Center only attracted lawyers who associated for their own cynical purposes, and weren’t woke at all? Maybe there was a very different problem, as the well-intended crashed head first in the reality that tears and heartbreak doesn’t pay the bills, and that these lawyers had rent to be paid, mouths to feed, just like the clients seeking a free ride.

As any lawyer who does pro bono is painfully aware, when someone doesn’t pay for a lawyer’s time and advice, they too often squander it unmercifully. They need to talk at all hours at great length. They make demands of a lawyer that no paying client would make, because they grasp that every wasted hour costs them money. And of course, every pro bono client’s problem is a grave injustice. How could a decent lawyer not give his life to prevent this grave injustice?

Again, from the gnarled fingers of Joe Patrice, who is admitted to practice law but has never, but never walked into a courtroom holding the hand of the poor and downtrodden to save them from the ailments of society that threaten their welfare.

Whether the demand was too overwhelming or attorneys weren’t committed enough, while it’s sad to see this organization go, attorneys should take this opportunity to redouble their commitment to funding for the Legal Services Corporation, expanding Pro Bono outreach to litigants who may not know what’s available to them, and supporting “Low Bono” efforts for the ever increasing population of folks who find themselves too well off to be indigent but far too poor to hire legal counsel.

Without massive funding from some extremely deep-pocketed philanthropic source, there wasn’t a chance in hell of this heartwarming notion surviving, Whether the small fraction of pro se’s in need of guidance and representation who found their way to the Posner Center deserved help or not, even the best-intended cadre of pro bono lawyers couldn’t made a dent in the number of free-riders.

And even as the best-intended lawyers eventually come to realize, their best intentions won’t pay the rent. Whether the lawyers were selfish or just too overwhelmed by their passion for social justice that they didn’t grasp the economics of the situation is unknown, but Judge Posner is a smart fellow, so it’s hard to imagine he lacked the capacity to grasp that this scheme was doomed to fail. And fail it did.

16 thoughts on “Judge Posner Learns The Economics of Free

  1. Wilbur

    Not to mention the time required to sort out and get rid of the nutjobs and perpetually put-upon from those with legitimate problems. And then time needed to pray they don’t come back the next day.

      1. B. McLeod

        Around the Center pro se’s revolved,
        But now, alas, it is dissolved,
        Came colleagues there to help? Oh, no Sir,
        Instead they cried, “Take off, you Posner!”

  2. B. McLeod

    This is a common model, also used by ABA. You declare a “cause,” and form a “program” to address it, which program consists almost entirely of taking public credit for serving the cause, while calling around to see if others will do the actual work for free. If you receive or even solicit donations, you just use that money to pay the staff and communications costs of trying to line up people to do the substantive work for free. It is a great mechanism for pretending to be doing substantive work. It is not so great a mechanism for actually accomplishing anything.

  3. C. Dove

    That’s unfortunate timing, seeing as Lisa Bloom appears to have suddenly found herself with an abundance of free time on her hands.

  4. Patrick Maupin

    But everything on the internet is free. You’re a lawyer and you’re on the internet, ergo, you’re free. Simple logic.

    You just need to figure out how to make up for it in volume, like google and facebook. Start by talking with Posner — apparently he had the volume, but didn’t know what to do with it.

    Get Barleycorn to write you a business plan, use Jake’s brilliant marketing to reel in the broke crazies, and tell all the lawyers hanging around here they can take clients instead of hitting your tip jar.

    What could possibly go wrong?

  5. Scott Jacobs

    Seems a lot of attorneys over at ATL care just enough about the poor to complain and scold us over how they don’t get representation, but just not quite enough to try providing it themselves.

    1. SHG Post author

      Virtue signaling is much easier than being virtuous. Also, would you want Joe Patrice to represent an actual client?

  6. Phillip

    Great article. I actually volunteered for this when It first opened. Sent a nice email. Never heard back.
    I am sure BigLaw will bemoan the injustice and print up expensive brochures about how they are helping the “underserved” while its lawyers simultaneously crush their individual and small business adversaries.

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