Pro Bono Sucks


I’m sorry, but I can’t take it anymore. This is the fifth time in three weeks I’ve received (and—yes, fine, I’ll admit it, deleted without opening) the “Urgent Pro Bono Staffing: Please read!” email from Mr. Of Counsel, who is tasked with harassing everyone in the firm about taking on pro bono work. Call me heartless, call me a horrible person, an obnoxious, selfish little snot, but I’ll go ahead and say it: I hate pro bono.

I just can’t understand why BigLaw associates are constantly guilt-tripped into not only having to care about this nonprofit, Skid Row crap, but also having to spend time working on it, for no credit. No other professionals are strong-armed into doing random work for people who can’t pay out of some outdated sense of noblesse oblige, so why are lawyers? Because we get paid pretty well? Please. Know any i-bankers who’ve clocked a few hundred pro bono hours selling bonds for asylum refugees recently? What about your friendly neighborhood hedge fund manager, cosmetic surgeon, or real-estate developer?

Not to mention, if I was so hell-bent on doing so-called meaningful work for underprivileged clients, why would I be working at a big firm? I know, I know. The firm says its attorneys have access to so many resources that we’re under a “professional obligation” to give back to the community. Enough with the resources bit. You know who else has resources? The government. Let them worry about the community. Because, I hate to break it to the powers that be at the firm, but your main resources are us. As in: the associate hamsters who keep the billable-hours wheel churning out plenty of cash to pour back into your and, yes, our pockets.

And please spare me the routine about how pro bono hours are just as good as client billable hours and count fully toward partnership. They don’t. Who do you think has a better shot at making partner: the guy who billed 1300 hours on a multibillion-dollar merger that earned the Firm a $19 million fee, or the guy who racked up 1300 pro bono hours drafting bylaws for every nonprofit soup kitchen in Queens? Sure, you’ll see the latter’s face on all the firm’s recruiting brochures, representing its highly prized commitment to pro bono work—you just won’t see him at the annual partners’ meeting.

So, there it is. I’m not against providing free legal services to people who can’t afford to pay (hell, I couldn’t afford my firm if I needed them); I’m just against being forced to do it. So, let’s strike a compromise, OK, BigLaw? You set up a system in which I don’t need to bill at least 2000 hours a year to not get fired, no less get a bonus to pay off the thousands of dollars of debt I still have from law school, and I’ll clock all the count-for-nothing pro bono hours you want. Until then, please stop pretending that we’re all humanitarians and just let me rack up those billables working on zillion-dollar deals for the biggest, baddest, richest clients in the universe without feeling like I’m some sort of ungrateful cretin. That’s why I came here in the first place.

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30 Comments

  1. Butt Boy

    August 18, 2008 at 7:00 am

    Hooray for BFW! That line about the main resources being the associates is so true.  It’s so easy to be generous with other peoples’ time!

  2. Drilldo

    August 18, 2008 at 6:03 pm

    Spoken like a true cake-eater.
    Thank God empathy wasn’t on the LSAT.

  3. A lawyer's lawyer

    August 20, 2008 at 7:09 am

    If you nock anyone in medicine off your list (other than say the highest end boob job artists in CA) you’re spot on, but I guess you missed the part about the practice of law being more than just a paycheck.

  4. Johnny T

    August 21, 2008 at 8:36 am

    Ahhhh!  There’s nothing like a big firm lawyers whining about doing some work to help others rather than themselves.  While I understand the self-centered nature of our work, me thinks one should peek their head out of the office once in a while and look at the world around them!  The struggle to make partner, buy a Porsche, and move to a suburb where your eyes will never fall upon those in need of pro bono services may be great, but your needs mean little compared to those struggling to eat, seek protection from an abusive spouse, or receive medical care.
    Wake up, stop whining, and realize you’ve got so much while others have so little.

  5. Mike

    August 21, 2008 at 6:06 pm

    You know what’s expected at a big firm.  If you can’t take it, go to a medium or small firm where you might have more time.

  6. Sharikov

    August 22, 2008 at 11:35 am

    You said:
    “No other professionals are strong-armed into doing random work for people who can’t pay out of some outdated sense of noblesse oblige—so why are lawyers?”
    He said:
    “Pro bono representation is not charity; it is part of the deal that we made when we signed up to be officers of the court and members of the bar.
    For example, University of St. Thomas School of Law Professor Neil Hamilton recently penned an article in The Professional Lawyer entitled “Professionalism clearly defined.” In that article Professor Hamilton notes that:
    Public service is an important element to all these professionalism definitions.  Each lawyer should devote professional time to serve the public good, particularly by representing pro-bono clients … .”1
    And, of course, we have the Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 6.1 of which carefully explains what we are to do with respect to the representation of the indigent.2
    Pure self-interest on the part of the practicing bar dictates that the unmet legal needs of the indigent be addressed.  Doing so is not “charity.” It is part of the social contract, part of the “deal” between the larger society and the profession.
    The Social Contract
    On the one hand, attorneys are allowed to self-regulate and control the professional aspects of their practices.  On the other hand, the profession agrees to provide all members of society with equal access to the legal system entrusted to us.  To the extent that the profession fails to fulfill the access component of that social contract it invites more regulation by state and federal agencies (think about the accountants for a moment in that regard).
    Let me make one further point and I will shut up (for now).
    Closely allied to the “it’s charity” argument is the notion that attorneys are being asked to do something that no other profession or group in society has to do and that it is unfair to expect us to do that.
    Sorry, I don’t have much sympathy for that argument.  We have service men and women right now (some of them now members of the legal profession) fighting and dying in the armed forces.  That’s something that the rest of us don’t have to do, something that most of will never be asked or agree to do.
    But, it’s something they signed up for; it’s part of their deal with society.

    Just like satisfying the unmet legal needs of the indigent is part of our social contract with society as attorneys.”
    Full article here:  http://www2.mnbar.org/benchandbar/2008/aug08/pres_pg.html

  7. Artemis

    August 22, 2008 at 11:52 am

    I’ll give you that pro bono hours should count toward partnership/year-end bonus/etc.  But the rest of this rant shows a poor understanding of the practice of law in general.  Pro bono is a part of the profession, of the social contract, as commenter 1 put it.  If you don’t like it, go be a soulless investment banker or financier.  You’ve already got the soulless part going for you.

  8. Justin

    August 22, 2008 at 2:24 pm

    You must work for a crappy firm.  Pro-bono hours almost universally count towards the billable minimum.  Also, one’s chances of making partner at a large firm are so small that it’s better to just assume you won’t and live your (now happy) life accordingly.

  9. GaultierMalde

    August 23, 2008 at 9:23 am

    Cannot agree more with BTW.

  10. BFA pro bono lover

    August 23, 2008 at 9:24 am

    you mean they pay me big firm money AND I get to do pro bono – where I can exercise more authority and responsibility than the junior partners on most cases? What’s NOT to like about pro bono?  They call those people overly worried about the hours grinders – and they don’t make partner either.

  11. William Lee

    August 23, 2008 at 9:25 am

    BFW does not appreciate meaning of pro bono. It mean provide service to under privileged person.  BFW sound like she like money and fun and drinking and power, and she have sex with person she meet in bar. She need to understand people need help from lawyers and cannot pay big firm bill. So BFW should give of herself and get rewarded, even if not with money, fun, drinking and power. Who know, maybe she find man to give her good sex, too.

  12. Greeny

    August 24, 2008 at 8:27 am

    BFW is right.  The point of the article is that no one at this type of professional level is expected to do pro bono of the nature that lawyers are expected.  Besides, there are only a couple good firms that would credit you with more than 50 hours from pro bono work.  Anyone who has billed more than 2400 hours a year understands what BFW is saying.  The rest of you work for TTT firms, go to a TTT school, or aren’t even lawyers.

  13. Content Lawyer

    August 24, 2008 at 5:10 pm

    I’m so glad my firm pays to have our pro bono hours taken by some other suckers.

  14. russian spy

    August 24, 2008 at 6:13 pm

    BFW doesn’t sound greedy, just dumb. Lots of people donate their time or services to charitable causes. Restaurants donate their food, managers, ibankers etc donate their time by serving on boards, business school students help small business and non-profits write business plans, tax professionals and estate planners do pro-bono work for elderly, pharmaceutical companies donate medicines to developing countries, the list is goes on and on not to mention the billions of dollars these professionals donate to charitable cause.

  15. Big Firm Associate

    August 24, 2008 at 6:33 pm

    There are some good points in there, but it’s not an either-or proposition.  No one in biglaw (almost no one) bills 1300 pro bono hours in a year.  It’s more like 2100 client-billable hours and 100 pro bono hours.
    And at the firms where the pro bono hours count for bonuses and minimums, the pro bono hours are a drop in the bucket, cost you nothing, and keep the of-counsel person happy.
    Setting that aside, the of-counsel person appealing to your morals or noblesse oblige or whatever is just using the same shakedown tactics that everyone else uses when they’re asking for something for nothing.  What else are they supposed to do?  How else are they supposed to ask?  As you seem to be aware, law firms find that it’s good for their image if their associates do some so-called pro bono work and if their marketing group lets the whole world know.  To that extent, your pro bono work is good for the firm’s bottom line (at least to a point—if you’re doing too few, the pro bono person will bother you; too many and it’ll be someone else).  The firm should recognize that by counting pb hours toward billables and minimums.

  16. Butt Boy

    August 26, 2008 at 6:12 am

    With all due respect to the pious sentiments that have been expressed here, the question is not whether the legal profession owes some obligation to society but who is going to pay that obligation and how.  Once you hit 150 hours a month every hour after that comes out of YOU, your time with your family, your friends, your possibility of having what anyone else on earth would call a life.  The firm that demands a 250 hour month from you should not at the same time be solemnly intoning your “societal obligations.” You have an obligation to see your wife or husband or lover as well, not to mention your kids (and I mean while they are awake).  The firm pays my payroll withholding tax, another obligation that I owe to society, and one that will result in a much faster ass-kicking from society if it ever stopped.  The firm can hire some flea-bag lawyer at a much cheaper rate than I bill out at to discharge my pro bono obligations and, more importantly, their own.  And if that makes me a cake-eater, bring on the devil’s food, baby.

  17. Al Dickman

    August 26, 2008 at 1:56 pm

    Big Firm Whore should think about being more compassionate, notwithstanding that lawyers may be treated differently as far as having “obligations” to the poor unlike others.  Note that doctors often render services for which they are not ever paid back.  Big Firm Whore should view this as a cost of doing business, much like buying Prada shoes and other expensive trinkets that the law firm salary provides the wherewithall for.  Just accept that you are getting a big salary for more than parading your fancy rear end around the place doing deposition preps and EBTs, due diligence etc.  This extra simply goes with the territory.  Who knows, you might even meet some person you might never otherwise have associated with, get married, have a litter of kids and give up the practice of law for a life of domesticity in the ghetto (with your prada shoes, of course).  Best of luck to you, Big Firm Whore!

  18. The Truth

    August 26, 2008 at 9:05 pm

    this is why people hate lawyers.

  19. My Life sux, Miami

    August 28, 2008 at 9:59 am

    Whoever thinks they have the right to pass around other people’s hard earned free time needs a swift kick in the behind. I know I didn’t spend countless all nighters and student loans on learning how to help the homeless. While some people were sleeping in late, pissing their time away, living in their mom’s basement and working at their local starbucks, I was paying bills, working and studying and then studying. Let the people with so-called “free-spirit” and questionable purpose spend their time wandering around soup kitchens, if I want to help the community, I’ll donate to the Salvation Army.

  20. OldShark

    August 29, 2008 at 7:09 am

    I will let you off the hook for pro-bono. It is not needed anymore. Thank God Lyndon Johnson, the greatest President in the history of our country, won the war on poverty. It just does not exist anymore. America is free of real poverty. What we have left is relative poverty. Real poverty is wondering where the next meal is coming from. Few people really have this concern.  As solo lawyer, I gave this a whirl years ago. I just could not feel sorry for these folks who had lots of money for smokes and high end clothes but wanted a free lawyer. Banish your guilt and buy yourself another double soy latte!

  21. E Foote

    August 29, 2008 at 7:57 am

    Dear BFW:

    You are not just part of a law firm, you are part of a profession. That profession is part of a system of justice. That system depends on the work of the professionals involved to maintain its level playing field.  If a portion of the population is denied access to the system, the playing field is not level and the system fails. By doing pro bono work, you are making sure that the system and your profession continue as viable societal engines.  No system, no profession equals no law firm, no job.If you don’t like representing individuals, ask your supervisor if you can participate in other pro bono activities: like lobbying Congress for more money for Legal Service Corporations.

  22. Smythe

    August 29, 2008 at 12:13 pm

    this is why the practice of law as a private business should be eliminated and all lawyers should be employed by the State. You play your role, you do your job, you advocate zealously for your client, and if you lose, you lose.
    Things like pro bono and Legal Aide companies are a joke and don’t do s— to “level the playing feild” between the rich and the poor, because they never get involved in anything that is contested. The only thing they do is take business away from strugling small firms (where the overwhelming majority of lawyers work) that depend on regular wills, gaurdianships and other such jobs coming in.
    Needless to say, this would be expensive, at least in the short term. But why are we wasting the tax payer’s money on welfare, soup kitchens and free healthcare for whoever tells the right lie to the right government office? The government should not be handing out these things; the government SHOULD be protecting the innocent and punnishing the evil-doer. There should not be a bill for that.

  23. Solo

    August 29, 2008 at 12:20 pm

    I do lots of pro bono. Like when dirtball clients stiff me on my bill.

  24. OldShark

    August 29, 2008 at 8:35 pm

    Pro bono a duty; an obligation to the public; something everyone should do?  This is the kind of thinking that rings my phone off the hook with one person after another wanting services for free.  I do not embrace this entitlement.  The absolute worst attorney to have on the other side is a do-gooder who actually believes s/he is making a difference.  You can do as much of this work as you like.  The absolute scummiest clients you will meet – and those most likely to make a bar complaint – are pro bono.  Walk on the ice at your own risk not mine.

  25. Snively Whiplash

    September 5, 2008 at 11:30 pm

    At least you get the charity prices on show tickets, right? As I ask at 3:30AM.

  26. Anonymous

    September 15, 2008 at 10:38 am

    Pro Bono is actually good for your sanity.

  27. NCLawyer

    October 17, 2008 at 4:53 pm

    I don’t think noblesse oblige is out-dated, but I don’t do a lot of intentional pro bono work either. (We do enough unintentional pro bono work these days it seems, leaving little time for the other kind.) I do a fair amount of explaining to the random people who call that I cannot sue Heaven to get their dead relatives back that they really need to call Family Services. (True story; two hours of my life I’ll never get back.) I also occasionally help poor grad student friends get credit-card companies off their back, tell relatives why they should incorporate and get insurance, etc.
    I also notice that when I have a case where Legal Aide is representing one of the parties, I have to do all the work to make the case go anywhere, that I am the one who ends up drafting discovery, motions, the settlement documents and the dismissals when all is said and done.  Meaning sometimes my clients subsidize other people’s “pro bono” work, because nothing would ever get done otherwise.

  28. whoever

    January 26, 2009 at 9:17 pm

    I wonder why no one has mentioned one extremely frustrating aspect of pro bono as a big firm lawyer—that the skills we hone in our 2000 or so hours of billable work contribute very little to our competence to perform our 100 or so hours of pro bono work, which is usually in a completely different substantive area and requires managing a completely different kind of client.  I may be a very good junior associate in my own practice area, but when it comes to making an SSI claim or resolving a landlord-tenant dispute, 20 hours of a decent Legal Aid attorney’s time is worth 100 hours of mine.  And the Legal Aid attorney’s hourly rate is considerably lower.  Sure, I may become a better person through the well-rounded perspective on society I gain from pro bono work, but isn’t it better for the clients if we just give a generous chunk of our salaries to Legal Aid?  It’s not an either-or proposition for me as an associate, but in the overall scheme of things, it makes a lot more sense to get big law firms to donate their money than their associates’ hours.

  29. Jay

    August 15, 2009 at 10:43 am

    OldShark- please you need to get out of your fancy BMW and walk on the street for once in your life.  Not everyone grew up in an educated home.  Attorneys like yourself make me sick.  Your self absorbed.  You have no real understanding.  Go back to your rich little pad and complain some more.  While the rest of the world is your little slave and making nothing for it.

  30. Laura

    November 9, 2009 at 2:40 pm

    I’m curious: do you work at a firm that does not credit any pro bono hours toward billable, or do they say they credit pro bono hours but look down upon it? Your post was kind of ambiguous on that. If they don’t give any credit, then yeah, they shouldn’t strong-arm you into doing it. I think all firms that claim to care about pro bono ought to allow associates to count at least some pro bono hours toward their billable requirement, because from what I have heard from people who have worked as associates in biglaw, just meeting the billable hours requirement is tough enough, let alone having time for pro bono.

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