I’d like to think that this team of pro bono lawyers and experts made a pretty compelling case that statistical tools could be used prospectively to improve the accuracy of the census counts, and to bring the undercounted out of the shadows. And for the 1990 decennial census, the Census Bureau made the determination that these kinds of lessons and tools would be part of the process from the outset. Sometimes even when you lose, you win. Sometimes, eventually, everybody wins.
From that point on, a pro bono matter was pretty much always part of my practice. As an associate, these matters included representing an African American woman in her Title VII discrimination claim against her former employer, and representing an inmate on his Second Circuit appeal of the dismissal of his claim that the state prison disciplinary system was racially biased.
As a partner, my role shifted to encouraging and promoting and supervising countless pro bono matters, from political asylum cases to housing court matters to uncontested divorces. The lessons from my pro bono origin story stayed with me and guided me in those matters. Maybe they helped others find their own pro bono origin story as well.
And now, as a judge in a court with many unrepresented parties, I’m still thinking about pro bono—and I still love pro bono origin stories, especially when they are unlikely. One of my pro bono heroes is a bankruptcy and litigation partner at a national firm—and over the years, alongside his litigation and restructuring practice and managing his firm, he has represented death row inmates in challenging their capital sentences. It’s one thing to help your client. It’s another to save his life.
Another of my pro bono heroes is actually a firm that is known for its cutting-edge work representing the tech industry. Big clients, big issues, industry-leading work. And this firm gives back by fostering opportunities for its lawyers to advise small startups—enterprises that would never, not ever, find their way into a leading law firm’s lobby, never mind the firm’s conference rooms. As they explain it, their attorneys are as excited about this work as they are about the largest deal or financing.
Yet another of my pro bono heroes is a program—and here, I’ll name names. The program is ABA Free Legal Answers, and it partners with state bars to connect lawyers around the country who have the capacity to respond to the occasional question about the law and legal rights with people who just need a little help. Recently, ABA FLA volunteers answered their two hundred thousandth question—that’s two hundred thousand people who got information they needed, for free, from a lawyer. Just as important, that’s two hundred thousand times that a lawyer got to make a difference, and perhaps, begin to write their own pro bono origin story.
So, what’s your pro bono origin story? Is it like mine, the revelation of being part of a team on major pro bono impact litigation? Or are you that rare and extraordinary attorney who takes on the capital appeal alongside their commercial practice? Is your narrative like that of the associate who bills time to a major tech deal in the morning and sits down with a fledgling entrepreneur in the afternoon? Are you, or could you be, the lawyer who stepped up and offered a Free Legal Answer to some of those two hundred thousand people with a question? Once you do pro bono, in whatever way works for you, I predict that you’ll be back. I don’t think many people do pro bono just once. They are hopeless—actually, hopeful—recidivists. And then you can write your own pro bono origin story. You’ll be glad you did.