Connecting to the Profession
The coming wave
In the 1970s, many went into law to make a difference. Some of them are finally making it now. Today’s young lawyers don’t want to wait that long.
Thirty years ago, after Vietnam and Watergate, young idealists entered the legal profession in unprecedented numbers, choosing law as their way to “be the change,” as Mahatma Gandhi urged. Some became Nader’s Raiders, some went into government and a few managed to find jobs in places like Appalachia or the inner cities. Many, however—discouraged by low pay or scarce opportunities—took other paths.
But today, as the 1970s generation reaches its 50s and 60s, growing ranks of lawyers are pursuing “second acts” in public service and pro bono, after years of doing entirely different work. The trend is one of several which, taken together, hint at the coming areas of growth in public interest law.
Another is the emergence of young lawyers who are building viable solo practices in underserved areas. And, in some large law firms, where pro bono work hasn’t always been supported to the extent that it could be, there are new initiatives to facilitate it. Even critics cautiously acknowledge the stepped-up activity in firms, hopeful that more sustained commitment will follow.
There are also growing numbers of “cause lawyers” supported by well-funded organizations across the political spectrum, and new “hybrid” firms that do some paid work in order to subsidize their predominantly pro bono caseloads. Together, these developments show that the options for public-spirited work are taking new forms.
Below are some snapshots of lawyers at the front of the wave.
Second acts at home and abroad
Six years ago, Tony Essaye ’61, then a partner at Clifford Chance, and his good friend Bob Kapp, a partner at Hogan & Hartson, had the ugly “R” word on their minds: retirement. But neither was inclined to take that option. Why not put their combined years of accumulated experience to good use, by sharing their knowledge with those who might not have access to legal services? And why not find other like-minded lawyers nearing retirement to join them?
Kapp had a long-standing interest in international human rights, and Essaye had much experience in international business. It made sense that their inclination was to go global. Buoyed by enthusiastic interest from lawyers at home and organizations abroad, they launched the International Senior Lawyers Project.
ISLP engages experienced lawyers—some retired and some in active practice—to volunteer for legal projects in or affecting developing nations. The projects take place in many regions—southern Africa, Eastern Europe and India, to name a few—and their common goal is ambitious: to promote the rule of law by furthering human rights, increasing access to justice and promoting equitable economic development.
They began by assisting organizations like Ashoka, an Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit that provides fellowships to social entrepreneurs, particularly in developing countries. In one project, they helped the Human Rights Law Network—India’s largest public interest law firm—push for broader rights and protections that are relatively new in India. “We’ve worked with them on issues like disability, domestic violence, sexual harassment and discrimination on the basis of caste,” Essaye said. Volunteer lawyers have spent considerable time helping integrate U.S. precedents in these areas into the Human Rights Law Network’s litigation strategies.
ISLP also works with the Open Society Justice Initiative, which combats corruption, promotes freedom of information and increases access to justice in various former Soviet Bloc countries. According to Essaye, in many of these countries, legal assistance had been theoretically guaranteed to those who cannot afford it since the Communist era, but the system had completely broken down. Now governments are open to change, including new programs modeled on the public defender system in the United States, and ISLP has been sending experienced attorneys to assist in this process.
In June 2004, ISLP launched a venture with the Black Lawyers Association of South Africa, setting up a 10-week pilot program of practical “hands-on” instruction in commercial law for some 30 black attorneys in Johannesburg, conducted by experienced American commercial lawyers. During apartheid, black attorneys were effectively precluded from practicing business law, with the result that, today, many younger black attorneys lack the mentors and other support systems that would normally facilitate lawyers’ pursuit of a commercial law practice. The program has since been expanded to include sessions in Durban and Cape Town.
“Our goal is to make this not only a teaching program,” said Essaye, “but a program that will help black attorneys increase their contribution to the South African economy and society.”
Expanded pro bono opportunities in law firms
The Washington, D.C., office of Hogan & Hartson might seem an unlikely place from which to accomplish the construction of a major new infrastructure project for post-genocide Rwanda. But Claudette Christian ’79, a partner in the firm, is doing just that. Under the auspices of the ISLP, Christian is working pro bono with a team of lawyers and the Rwandan government to develop a power plant that will use methane gas extracted from Lake Kivu as its power source. Electricity generated by the plant will then be fed into the existing grid. For Rwanda, where hopes for recovery and stability lie in the reduction of staggering poverty, the project is critically important.
Christian practices principally in the areas of international corporate and finance work to develop projects in the oil and gas, telecommunications, transportation and aviation industries in emerging markets. Joe Bell, an ISLP board member and a senior partner at Hogan & Hartson, believed she was an ideal choice to head up a team of project finance lawyers, and invited her to take the reins and spend as much time as she needed to accomplish the financing.
Her work for ISLP and Rwanda is an example of new, more flexible accommodations of pro bono practice in some law firms. More firms are dedicating full-time slots for pro bono lawyers. Some are now even allowing equity partners to practice full time for pro bono clients. While many observers say that firms could be doing much more, there has nonetheless been a spike in law firm encouragement of pro bono work, says Esther Lardent, president and CEO of the Pro Bono Institute at Georgetown University Law Center, an organization that offers research, analysis, technical assistance and training on innovative approaches to enhance access to justice for the poor and disadvantaged.
One catalyst has been the American Bar Association’s ongoing challenge to firms to devote 3 to 5 percent of their total billable hours to pro bono work, says Harvard Law School Professor David Wilkins ’80. Furthermore, he notes, many firms are motivated by hopes of making The American Lawyer magazine’s “A list,” a ranking of the top 20 law firms based on their commitment to associate satisfaction, revenue per lawyer, diversity—and pro bono work.
“In the war for talent,” Wilkins said, “and in order to keep the lawyers in the law firms, they want to make the law firms places where people can do meaningful work.”
Several major firms have hired full-time directors to oversee their pro bono commitments. Daniel Greenberg, former president and attorney-in-charge of the Legal Aid Society, for example, was hired to be director of pro bono at Schulte Roth & Zabel, the firm that the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law recently chose to serve as co-counsel representing victims of Hurricane Katrina in a class-action suit against FEMA. Greenberg was director of clinical programs at HLS from 1987 until 1995.
Some observers point out that law firm pro bono contributions are just a drop in the bucket compared with what they are earning, and are still falling well short of where they should be. Cameron Stracher ’87, a professor at New York Law School and the author of “Double Billing,” a nonfiction account of life as a law firm associate, said that while any effort to encourage more pro bono is commendable, the new emphasis on pro bono is “just a bright and shiny lie that big firms use to lure law school graduates.”
But Mark O’Brien, founder of Probono.net, an online network of public interest lawyers, said that if the question is whether law firms are doing more good than in the past, “the answer is, clearly, yes.”
One model program is that of Holland & Knight, whose Community Service Team includes 10 lawyers. Five are fellowship recipients with two-year appointments to work pro bono full time, and five are senior lawyers who stay in the positions permanently. Two to three associates who join the firm each year are fellowship recipients and are paid the same salary as other Holland & Knight associates at the same level (the starting salary was raised to $145,000 in their New York office this year).
Harmony Loube ’04, a Chesterfield Smith Fellow in Holland & Knight’s New York City office, wanted to pursue public interest work after clerking for a federal judge. But, as the oldest of seven siblings (“I always have a couple of brothers living with me,” she said) and as the daughter of a beloved mother whom she would love to rescue from Section 8 housing in Maryland—and as a mother of a 6-year-old son herself—Loube felt her prospects for doing public interest work were limited by her financial considerations.
“Harvard was a big blessing for me,” she said. “And from that blessing came a sense of responsibility to help my mother and my brothers.” But, at the same time, Loube could not turn her back on a need to do some good in the larger world, to use her law degree to address the wrongs she feels riddle the criminal justice system. Her mother, she says, despite her own financial situation, counseled her to follow her heart. “She could tell how passionately I felt about working in criminal defense,” Loube said. “I felt a responsibility to represent people that I had seen all of my life locked out of the justice system simply because they could not afford adequate representation. But I didn’t know how I could do public interest work and not make money, not help out my family.”
1 of 2 | next