This blog is mostly for people who are already committed to public interest law, or at least for those who are on the fence about what they want to do. But I recognize that there are many lawyers who don’t see themselves as working in the public interest except in the narrow sense that they represent their clients diligently, work to hone their craft, and contribute to the well-functioning of the legal system. And there are plenty of law students who are striving to get good grades and a good job after law school, without much thought about how they will contribute to the public good.
That is not to say that they won’t find ways to give back to their communities, by, for example, volunteering through civic organizations or their church or by donating money to charity. There is nothing wrong with this kind of contribution, and we should applaud people who devote themselves to the greater good no matter what form it takes. But I would argue that as lawyers we have a special obligation to contribute to the public interest in our role as lawyers, either by devoting ourselves to public interest careers or, at the very least, by spending a significant amount of time doing pro bono legal work.
Although lawyers are encouraged to engage in pro bono work―the Model Rules of Professional Conduct state that lawyers should aspire to provide 50 hours of pro bono legal services per year―there is no jurisdiction that currently requires lawyers to do any pro bono at all. A 2017 survey by the American Bar Association found that 48% of respondents had not done any pro bono work in the past year and 20% had never undertaken pro bono service of any kind. The average number of hours spent providing pro bono services for all lawyers was 36.9 per year, and that number probably obscures the fact that a small number of lawyers do an extraordinary amount of pro bono while others do almost none.
This is simply unacceptable. Lawyers have a unique obligation to the public good because of the unique role they play in the legal system and the unique skill set they bring to the table. Simply put, anyone can go volunteer at a soup kitchen or donate to the United Way, but only lawyers can offer pro bono legal services. The legal system controls almost every aspect of our lives, and that is particularly so for low-income and marginalized communities. As Stephen Wexler wrote in Practicing Law for Poor People:
Poor people are not just like rich people without money. Poor people do not have legal problems like those of the private plaintiffs and defendants in law school casebooks. People who are not poor are like casebook people. In so far as the law is concerned, they lead harmonious and settled private lives; except for their business involvement, their lives usually do not demand the skills of a lawyer. Occasionally, one of them gets hit by a car, or decides to buy a house, or lets his dog bite someone. The settled and harmonious pattern of life is then either broken or there is a threat that without care it may be broken . . . Poor people get hit by cars too; they get evicted; they have their furniture repossessed; they can’t pay their utility bills. But they do not have personal legal problems in the law school way. Nothing that happens to them breaks up or threatens to break up a settled and harmonious life. Poor people do not live settled lives into which the law seldom intrudes; they are constantly involved with the law in its most intrusive forms.
Lawyers created this system and we serve as its gatekeepers. Given that, our obligation extends beyond that of an ordinary person to ensure that the system is fair and just.
That does not mean that every lawyer must strive to be Thurgood Marshall. There is other legal work to do and not enough public interest jobs for everyone. But that does not absolve lawyers of the responsibility that comes with being a lawyer. We have a tremendous amount of privilege granted to us by the legal system. In return, we must challenge the system when it fails people, which it does all the time.
So go ahead, volunteer at the soup kitchen. Donate money (especially to public interest organizations!). But that is not enough. As lawyers, we’re capable of more. Every lawyer should consider themselves a public interest lawyer – at least some of the time.