Saturday, December 31, 2005

The Washington Post has an op-ed written by Josh Sheptow, a law student who calls for law firms to donate money to support legal aid services rather than have their attorneys continue to do pro bono work.

Ah, so many (not-so-nice) thoughts are running through my head, it's hard to know where to start...

Maybe I'll start by law students have about the worst perspective on the practice of law of anyone, non-attorneys included. They think, by virtue of their having read some books and argued in class for some number of hours, that they know more than they do... and, unfortunately for everyone they encounter - attorneys and future clients alike - it's going to take them some time to realize that they're just not as smart as they think they are. I know this is a characteristic of many young folks, myself included way back when, but law students seem to suffer from an acute case of this disease (so much so that I refuse to have first year associates spend anytime on my legal work).

Or, accepting the premise that even blind squirrels (and law students) sometimes find an acorn, maybe I'll just take on his main argument, that an attorney who normally charges a client $500 an hour, instead of spending that hour on pro bono work, should spend that hour working on a client's behalf and send the $500 in billings to a legal aid group. Is he suggesting that the attorney spend an hour doing busy work for the client? If so, he's encouraging overbilling and possibly fraud... an admirable thing for a law student to be doing, right? See, an attorney is required by ethics rules to spend only the time working on a client's affairs as are justifiable... any more than that and it's overbilling, any less than that and the attorney isn't doing right by his client. So, if the attorney is already putting in the hours required by the case - and no more than that - then where is this 'extra' hour of billable time coming from that Sheptow wants donated to Legal Aid?

I know many law firms do require (or encourage) their associates to spend time working on pro-bono matters. They sometimes rationalize this as saying that this helps the associates gain valuable experience... but, as Sheptow does point out, unless the associate is planning on working on matters such as rent overcharging, domestic relations or something of the kind that Legal Aid attorneys work on, then the experience is going to be somewhat limited.

I think it's simply a feel good play on the part of the partners. They get to think they're doing good work, helping to dispel the image of attorneys as offering not much in the way of constructive services to society. Well, perhaps if they spent less time in the first place doing the things that makes society think of attorneys as leeches on the economy, then they wouldn't need to try so hard to make amends. In other words, if so many of them weren't giant f***-ups, then they wouldn't have to spend so much time saying 'sorry!'.