Pro Bono

Numerous applicants to law school claim that they want to become lawyers in order to serve the public interest — and some of them are telling the truth. Alas, after burdening themselves with six figures of law school debt, they find it difficult to follow through on their public-interest dreams. The path of least resistance, or at least the path to the fastest repayment of loans, is working for a large law firm.

Working for a prominent law firm is great — lucrative, prestigious, honorable work — provided that it’s actually what you want to be doing (as opposed to, say, public interest work in Nepal). Unfortunately, many who toil in Biglaw do so primarily for the debt-dispelling powers of the paycheck.

Well, if you go to the University of Chicago Law School, you might be able to have your cake and eat it too — i.e., obtain an amazing legal education, work in the public interest, and not find yourself trying to invoke the “undue hardship” exception in bankruptcy.

Let’s learn about some changes that Chicago Law just announced to its LRAP, or Loan Repayment Assistance Program (those wonky Chicago types love their acronyms)….

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Biglaw isn’t all about high-stakes mergers and bet-the-company litigation. Many Biglaw firms take their commitment to pro bono very seriously. Obviously, these firms need to pay the bills, first and foremost. But when they can, many firms do try to give back.

As many of you already know, Skadden takes that commitment quite a bit further, with its Skadden Fellows program. We highlight this worthy program every year. The Skadden Fellowships are for law school graduates who want to devote their lives to public service, and the firm makes a major financial commitment to its fellows. From the Skadden Fellows website:

Fellowships are awarded for two years. Skadden provides each Fellow with a salary and pays all fringe benefits to which an employee of the sponsoring organization would be entitled. For those Fellows not covered by a law school low income protection plan, the firm will pay a Fellow’s law school debt service for the tuition part of the loan for the duration of the fellowship. The 2011 class of Fellows brings to 620 the number of academically outstanding law school graduates and judicial clerks the firm has funded to work full-time for legal and advocacy organizations.

It’s a sweet gig if you can get it.

And if you take a look at the list of Fellows — perhaps you know some of them? — you’ll notice that quite a few of them attend the top law schools in the country….

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Convicts, or Mississippi lawyers?

Can Mississippi force lawyers to do pro bono work?

That’s the question state bar officials are thinking about, as reported in the ABA Journal. A number of Mississippi lawyers are objecting to a proposal that would require them to either (1) spend 20 hours a year representing the poor or (2) contribute $500 to the state bar for legal services programs.

One of these days, Mississippi is going to do something objectively good and moral and not at all confusing. But today is not that day…

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Sow your wild oats for a year -- and come to the firm when you're ready to work.

With apologies to Langston Hughes, we have to ask:

What happens to an associate deferred?
Does he dry up, like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore — and then run?

Run, run — away from Biglaw. That seems to be what at least some deferred associates are doing, as reported last week by the New York Times in an article about how they spent their deferral years — and how some of them aren’t returning to the well-feathered nests of private law firms when called back.

The Times interviewed two deferred associates who aren’t going back to their firms. Nathan Richardson, a 2009 graduate of the University of Chicago Law School who was deferred by Latham & Watkins, spent his year doing environmental law research at Resources for the Future — and plans to remain in public interest. Avi Singh, a 2009 graduate of Harvard Law School who was deferred by Quinn Emanuel, went off to the Santa Clara County public defender’s office in San Jose — and is staying there.

Due to deferrals, Latham and Quinn just lost the services of two bright young attorneys. And maybe, just maybe, this isn’t a bad thing — not just for these lawyers, but for their law firms….

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Last year, we covered a mistake made in a death penalty case by the white-shoe firm of Sullivan & Cromwell. It was a noteworthy development because of the rarity of the occurrence — S&C doesn’t often make mistakes, at least not ones as elementary as missing a deadline — and because of the stakes involved.

Well, the stakes are getting higher: S&C is now seeking SC review. The firm wants the Supreme Court to step in and essentially forgive the firm’s error in missing the deadline to file an appeal. Adam Liptak tells the tale, in the New York Times:

Sullivan & Cromwell is a law firm with glittering offices in a dozen cities around the world, and some of its partners charge more than $1,000 an hour. The firm’s paying clients, at least, demand impeccable work.

Cory R. Maples, a death row inmate in Alabama, must have been grateful when lawyers from the firm agreed to represent him without charge. But the assistance he got may turn out to be lethal.

Please note: that last sentence originally appeared in the august pages of the Times. Despite its tabloid tone — we can imagine an announcer for Inside Edition intoning darkly, “the assistance he got may turn out to be lethal” — it did not appear first in Above the Law. [FN1]

So how did S&C put a man’s life in jeopardy? Let’s descend into the mailroom at 125 Broad Street….

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You know the drill when it comes to nonprofit fundraisers: hour-long open bar, followed by an excruciatingly long sit-down dinner. Like hamsters, you are rewarded for sitting through each speech with another course served. Once you’ve finished dessert, you hope for a video or slideshow, so the lights are dimmed and you can slip out unobserved.

Some fundraisers are more fun than others, of course — especially if there’s a photo booth with viking hats, or dueling lawyer rock bands (as there will be at the Black Cat in D.C. tonight). But generally these events are rather staid affairs.

LA-based legal services organization Bet Tzedek wanted to shake that formula up. Thirteen years ago, it launched The Justice Ball. Its founders were “sick of black tie and rubber chicken,” says the organization’s president/CEO Mitchell Kamin, and hoped to attract the young professional set instead of just geriatric philanthropists.

Over 2,500 people are expected to attend this year’s ball on Saturday night, featuring music by Dave Navarro and DJ Skribble, a Guitar Hero battle, legal tattoos, and a J-Date sponsored speed dating session. Since I’m in L.A. after attending Loyola’s Journalist Law School (and a historic taping of Jimmy Kimmel Live), I’ll be in attendance Saturday night too, thanks to comp tickets from Bet Tzedek. I look forward to spotting many summer associates there. Sidley, Skadden, Latham & Watkins, and O’Melveny & Myers are among the many firms that put the Justice Ball on their summer associate events calendars.

I interviewed Kamin about what to expect Saturday, whether tickets are still available (they are), and how he has transformed the LA County legal services firm into an award-winning national network.

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Have you been waiting for a megafirm to take a stand in the Arizona immigration law mess? Biglaw has already been all up in the BP oil spill disaster. Why not weigh in on behalf of Arizona, or take the side of racially-profiled, dark-skinned people?

One Biglaw firm is ready to get into this. Dewey & LeBoeuf has filed an amicus brief on behalf of….

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Career Center AboveTheLaw Lateral Link ATL.jpgWelcome to the next post in our series on the results of the 2010 ATL/Career Center Associate Satisfaction survey. We’ve used the survey results to revamp the Career Center, powered by Lateral Link, with completely updated profiles, and we are highlighting insider information that Members shared about their firms in the eight key areas of associate satisfaction covered by the Career Center.

Today, it’s about doing good for everyone: PRO BONO.

  • This firm’s significant commitment to pro bono includes its “rotation” or “loaned associate” program, which allows associates to spend six months working full time for a poverty law or public interest organization.   
  • An impressively high 97% of associates at this Chicago-based firm perform an average of 111 pro bono hours each annually. 
  • Pro bono work has grown along with headcount at this ever-expanding firm – headcount has increased from 225 lawyers in 1995 to approximately 1,100 attorneys today, and the firm’s pro bono hours per attorney have nearly doubled since 2003 to 74 hours annually per associate.
  • An "unlimited" number of pro bono hours are counted towards billable hours at this firm, and some Members reported billing as much as 400-500 pro bono hours in 2009.

Additional pro bono highlights, after the jump.

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A few weeks ago, we reported on how Dewey & LeBoeuf was being less than enthusiastic in welcoming back to the firm some participants in DL Pursuits, its year-long sabbatical program.

Dewey might not be alone in treating its returnees in this way. Simpson Thacher — widely regarded as having invented the public interest fellowship as an innovative way of dealing with the downturn, and praised for doing so — appears to be taking a similar approach. A source reports:

Simpson, creator of the public interest year, is reneging on its “guaranteed return” promise. Multiple corporate and satellite office associates who indicated interest in the return option were told either that there might not be capacity, or just outright that there isn’t a place for them. From the firm that “invented” and still spins this program as public service, that’s disappointing.

The number of public interest fellows who aren’t being invited back to the firm is not known. We don’t believe it’s a huge number — somewhere in the single digits. (If you have information, please email us.)

We reached out to Simpson for comment. The firm has a somewhat different characterization of what’s going on here….

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Ian Graham is the author of Unbillable Hours: A True Story, which was published earlier this month. The book is a memoir of Graham’s time at Latham & Watkins, where he spent about five years as a litigation associate.

Unbillable Hours is not, however, a Latham exposé (which I’d eagerly read, by the way). Rather, the book centers on Graham’s work on a major pro bono case. The book’s publisher describes it as follows:

Landing a job at a prestigious L.A. law firm, complete with a six figure income, signaled the beginning of the good life for Ian Graham. But the harsh reality of life as an associate quickly became evident. The work was grueling and boring, the days were impossibly long, and Graham’s main goal was to rack up billable hours.

But when he took an unpaid pro bono case to escape the drudgery, Graham found the meaning in his work that he’d been looking for. As he worked to free Mario Rocha, a gifted young Latino who had been wrongly convicted at 16 and sentenced to life without parole, the shocking contrast between the quest for money and power and Mario’s desperate struggle for freedom led Graham to look long and hard at his future as a corporate lawyer.

Yesterday I chatted with Ian Graham about his book, his time at Latham, and how he made the transition from a legal career to a writing career.

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