Why We Do What We Do
Many felt that as a small firm lawyer I was foolish to think I could serve as president of the Louisiana State Bar Association and keep up with clients. Yet I emerged without resorting to bankruptcy court, and reflecting six months later on why I embarked on such a path, the answer is simple: I still believe that what we do is a special calling.
Not all law students hear that call, so in an effort to "enhance" the hearing of those entering Louisiana’s law schools, I participated in the "Law School Orientation Professionalism Program" for first–year students in which the dean, a Supreme Court Justice, and a representative of the bar spoke to students, faculty, and volunteer lawyers about the awesome privilege and responsibility inherent in being a lawyer. We then dispersed into smaller discussion groups where one big question arose: "Why do lawyers do pro bono work?"
Few discussion leaders had an answer beyond "because Rules of Professional Conduct say that we should." This was not persuasive to many and one student observed: "If I owned a hardware store, I wouldn’t even consider sending one of my employees down the street to work for 50 hours on my nickel at another hardware store. Why would there be a rule telling a lawyer that he should aspire to do such a thing? I mean, charity is good and all, but business is business."
We small and solo practitioners know that we didn’t go to law school to become purveyors of hardware, though some days it would be nice to be just about business. But the privilege of being a lawyer encompasses a great deal more. A lawyer stands at the gate of the court system and holds the key to access it. We do pro bono work because we respect and honor the people who have put their trust in us to guard that gate. We do pro bono work as partial repayment for the opportunities made available to us. We do pro bono work to ensure that our democratic society in which we believe and upon which our livelihood depends continues to survive. We do pro bono work because we believe in justice.
Marta-Ann Schnabel is past-president of the Louisiana State Bar Association, and a member of the ABA Standing Committee on Bar Activities and Services, and the National Conference of Bar Presidents. Contact her at email@example.com.