Pro Bono

[A] rush to open the practice of law to unschooled, unregulated nonlawyers is not the solution [to the justice gap]. This would cause grave harm to clients. Even matters that appear simple, such as uncontested divorces, involve myriad legal rights and responsibilities. If the case is not handled by a professional with appropriate legal training, a person can suffer serious long-term consequences affecting loved ones or financial security.

William T. “Bill” Robinson III, president of the American Bar Association (ABA), in a letter to the editor of the New York Times. Robinson’s letter responds to an NYT staff editorial arguing that “allow[ing] nonlawyers into the mix” could help address the justice gap, i.e., low-income Americans’ need for legal services.

Lawyers like to complain about the billable hours requirements at their firms. A common question seems to be what will count and what won’t. In this line of work, time is money, and many associates want to know if they’re wasting their time.

If the firm makes you go to a professional development event, are you losing out on hours? If you get wrangled into doing pro bono work, are your weekly billables for paid clients going to plummet? And will that ultimately get reflected in your bonus check?

Yesterday, we lamented the fact that we often report on depressing news about the state of the legal profession in this country. Today, we actually have some good news. Jenner & Block realized that their lawyers shouldn’t be toiling away in their dungeons offices and forgoing pro bono opportunities in order to meet their billable hours requirements.

The firm remembered that this profession is supposed to be about helping the less fortunate, and it has adjusted its policies accordingly….

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State bar associations could help address [low-income Americans' need for legal services] by requiring lawyers to report their pro bono service — such disclosure would likely increase many lawyers’ service to the recommended 3 percent to 5 percent of their paid work. Another step is to allow nonlawyers into the mix. The American Bar Association has insisted that only lawyers can provide legal services, but there are many things nonlawyers should be able to handle, like processing uncontested divorces.

– a New York Times staff editorial entitled Addressing the Justice Gap, which offers several proposals for reform of the legal profession. You can read the full piece here.


Reema Bajaj: pretty and professional.

I have previously expressed my belief in the innocence of Reema N. Bajaj, the 25-year-old lawyer who has been charged with prostitution. This Illinois solo practitioner didn’t strike me as a prostitute — and some who know her personally concur. A classmate of Bajaj from Northern Illinois University College of Law expressed his shock at the charges, and college students whom Bajaj taught described a caring and considerate teacher — an unlikely lawbreaker.

But, in fairness to the prosecution, evidence does exist that could be construed as supporting the charges. And some of this evidence is rather salacious — to wit, photographs of Reema Bajaj’s bajayjay.

If you have delicate sensibilities, please stop reading here. If you have a stomach for somewhat scandalous (but still safe for work) material, however, you may continue….

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The good folks over at Building A Better Legal Profession — a national grassroots movement that we’ve written about before, which seeks market-based workplace reforms in large private law firms — have updated their online directory and rankings of law firms with new information for 2011. The updated rankings shed light on which top law firms are excelling in such areas as diversity and pro bono work, and which ones still have some work to do.

Let’s look at some highlights from the new data, on such subjects as diversity, partnership, and associate attrition….

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Ed. note: This post is by Will Meyerhofer, a former Sullivan & Cromwell attorney turned psychotherapist. He holds degrees from Harvard, NYU Law, and The Hunter College School of Social Work, and he blogs at The People’s Therapist. His new book, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy, is available on Amazon (affiliate link).

Some big law firms are like the mob. They do ugly things, but prefer to avoid “ugliness.” The partners, like the capos of major crime families, have delicate constitutions.

Ugliness could result from ill-considered communication. For that reason, a capo – or a partner – isn’t going to tell you what he really thinks. That would be indelicate. It could lead to misunderstandings.

You, in turn, shouldn’t tell a partner what you really think. That could lead to sleeping with the fishes.

My client recently received a lesson in partner communication…

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Joseph Flom

Back in February, Joseph Flom — name partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, and one of the nation’s most successful and prominent lawyers — passed away, at the age of 87. During his life, Flom earned well-deserved renown as an attorney, philanthropist, and mentor. He was also a wonderful father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, many times over.

Joe Flom, R.I.P. — and R.I.C.H. As you might expect from the name partner of one of the world’s largest and most lucrative law firms, Flom left behind a vast fortune.

It might seem tacky to talk about this. But that hasn’t stopped us before given Flom’s commitment to charity, it’s actually heartwarming to see all of the worthy causes that will be receiving much-needed funds from the Flom estate.

So how much are we talking about? And who are beneficiaries of his will?

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Incoming summer associates, would you donate one day of your summer salary to help other students at your school who did not get summer jobs? Would you donate that money for a pro bono or public interest cause? Would you donate that money so your law school could fund the pro bono interests of other students?

Or am I giving you a false choice? Is it offensive to suggest that your law school needs one cent of your hard-won salary to fund public interest programs that should be covered by your tuition?

These are the questions facing students at one law school, thanks to an interesting donation request from the school’s administration. This isn’t a public interest auction like you’ll see at many law schools, where students with extra cash can bid on items, and auction proceeds are used to fund public interest fellowships. Rather, this is a direct request for a redistribution of income.

And I’m not sure if this is laudable or monstrous…

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Size Matters, one of Above the Law’s new columns for small-firm lawyers.

I have written this column from many places: my parents’ couch, my local Starbucks, my bed, etc. I have yet to try it from atop a soapbox, but here goes.

It is common knowledge that the need for pro bono services is increasing as funding for pro bono organizations is decreasing (or ceasing altogether). As explained by ABA President Stephen Zack, in a letter opposing cuts to funding for the Legal Services Corporation, “[f]inancially, many Americans are still hanging on by their fingernails. The worst thing that could happen is to lose the place people can turn to when their money woes create legal problems.”

Similarly, as explained by Esther Lardent, President of the Pro Bono Institute, in her address at the 2011 Annual Seminar and Forum on In-House Pro Bono, with regard to the impact of the economic downturn, “for pro bono . . . the worst is yet to come.” Lardent explains that the loss of funding to pro bono organizations has posed a “justice crisis,” and the need for legal assistance will increase.

So, as a result of the economy, more people need legal aid, but fewer legal aid organizations are able to meet those needs. Clearly if these people are to be served, private lawyers are going to need to take the laboring oar — and they have. According to Lardent, pro bono hours performed by major law firms increased in 2009 (2010 data is not yet available).

What about small law firms?

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On Tuesday we told you that McGuireWoods, Dewey & LeBoeuf, and Weil Gosthal were all contributing to the relief efforts under way in Japan. The response has been pretty great.

While some people seem to think Japan’s status as a rich nation means it doesn’t need any international aid, I don’t see how the country’s long-term ability to recover has anything to do with the immediate humanitarian crisis. Japan will undoubtedly be able to rebuild in the future, but its citizens need food and water today.

We’ve now received word that even more Biglaw firms are pitching in to do what they can. If you know of additional firms supporting relief efforts that we have not mentioned, please tell us in the comments to this post….

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