In a former life, I did a lot of coverage on Michael Bloomberg’s controversial “congestion pricing” plan for New York City. If you spend any length of time with transit policy — and don’t otherwise have a life — you’re going to find transit policy fascinating. It touches on law, politics, the environment and city planning.
It looks like Sidley Austin attorneys are getting a taste of this great work. The firm is working on behalf of a town which is trying to stop Washington, D.C.’s proposed “Purple Line.” I won’t bother you with the ins and outs of the Purple Line project (light rail versus buses!). But it’s particularly interesting that Sidley is representing the town of Chevy Chase, and the firm is working pro-bono.
When you think of disadvantaged clients in need of free legal services, you don’t really think of the well-to-do town of Chevy Chase do you? According to a press release from Action Committee for Transit:
The town has also engaged the nationally prominent law firm Sidley Austin to represent it
in the transit dispute. Sidley Austin has submitted to the Maryland Transit Administration an extensive request for information, much of which duplicates an informal request previously submitted by Columbia Country Club.
At present, the town’s lawyers are working “pro bono”–without payment. However,
Sidley Austin’s web site states that the firm’s pro bono work is done “to provide legal services to the poor and to charitable, religious, community, governmental and educational organizations that otherwise would be unable to afford legal representation.” The town can easily afford to pay for legal services. Its most recent financial statement shows it has $4.4 million tucked away in the bank–more than its entire annual budget of $3 million.
In these tough economic times, maybe the firm shouldn’t be giving away services for free when the client could pay? But it’s important to remember that pro bono work isn’t just about work a client can pay, it’s also about doing work that nobody will pay for.
Does Chevy Chase fit into that broader category? More after the jump.
One argument is that neither Chevy Chase nor any town would pay to defend itself against a potential light rail even if it’s a bad idea. There is a collective action problem. However Chevy Chase seems to have moved beyond game theory 101:
In the space of 12 months, the town has paid New York transportation consultant Sam Schwartz PLLC $374,000 to promote its anti-light rail efforts. This comes to more than $300 for each household residing in the town.
I guess collective action isn’t so much of a problem when property values are on the line.
Maybe Sidley is just engaging in a general campaign against the scourge of light rails and metropolitan sprawl? At this point, all the firm has done is comment on the environmental impact study regarding the Purple Line.
The firm thinks that the Action Committee for Transit is making a big deal about a small point. A Sidley spokesperson furnished us with this statement:
The firm has a long practice of representing cities and municipalities on a pro bono basis. The town of Chevy Chase contacted Sidley to see if the firm would help. The project went through the normal vetting process and was signed off on by the pro bono committee.
Firms usually don’t get criticized for doing pro bono work. But in the rough and tumble world of mass transportation, the normal rules of engagement do not apply!
What is the Purple Line? Why do we need it? [Action Committee for Transit]
Purple Line Impact on Trail [Save the Trail]