The following brief vignette is a work of fiction. It was cut from a longer work that’s still in progress (and has been for a long, long time, though it's now at the point that I'm cutting with abandon). The firm of Ellison & James is fictional. The unnamed narrator—the “I” and “me” of the vignette—is also fictional. I’m publishing this little piece on my blog for no special reason other than the beast demands to be fed . . . Evan Schaeffer
All the large law firms touted their commitment to pro bono work. And why not? It was good for the image of the firm, good for the firm’s lawyers to think of themselves as giving back to the community. At Ellison & James, the requirement that young lawyers work on pro bono assignments was sacrosanct. There were ways around the pro bono work, but these were not spoken of, even with office doors closed, and especially not to new associates. If you tried to use an assignment for a paying client to bail on your pro bono obligations, you would get a response like this. “Absolutely not, Mr. Junior Associate. The poor person you are helping expects exactly the sort of representation we give to our largest clients. You will just have to work a little late tonight. What sort of pro bono case are you working on? Landlord tenant, you say? An eviction? Court in the morning? Well take care of that one first—because we can’t have one of the firm’s clients getting evicted!—and then turn to my new assignment, which involves responding to this summary judgment motion. I expect you to polish it off in five or six hours overnight. I’ll see you back here in the morning when you return from court.”
This little lecture would be delivered at around, say, 6 p.m., just about the time your new wife was arriving home from work and starting to cook dinner. (You cooked dinner on the weekends.)
Such was the life of Mr. Junior Associate. It would have been verboten to point out to Mr. Partner that the type of representation the firm’s largest clients expected was something far different than what the pro bono client was receiving. The firm’s best clients got the best advice their money could buy from partners with years of experience. If you were one of the firm’s best clients, your projects were staffed by layers of associates, some researching, some writing, some reviewing, who would hand in their work to the junior partners upstairs, who would tear it apart and put it back together and then pass it off for some final review by a team of old dinosaurs who’d brought the client to the firm thirty years before. Meanwhile, the client whose eviction was being handled pro bono was being represented by a recent law school graduate who was more than a little hamstrung by the fact that in law school, no one had taught him how to practice law. And he still didn’t know. So he’d find the Oracle, a helpful associate named Hank Garland, who’d be leaning back with his feet on his desk with his dipping cup in front of his lower lip, ready to receive his next overflow of tobacco juice.
“Ah, an eviction issue! Here’s a form you can use.”
The junior associate without the faintest clue was, in fact, me. From some secret part of his desk that seemed to contain answers to all the riddles of the universe, Hank withdrew a form, which he handed to me.
“These cases all involve rent that’s overdue. You can’t win them in the usual sense. Not unless your client can actually pay the rent. What you can usually do is negotiate some kind of payment schedule. It should keep your client in the apartment. There’s a book in the library that explains landlord-tenant law in Illinois. It’s full of practical advice. Take a look at that.”
“Great. Thanks. That’s helpful. But I still don’t understand the firm’s attitude toward pro bono. Why can’t I get a more experienced lawyer to go to court with me. Doesn’t the firm realize that I’ve—never been to court?”
“There’s got to be a first time,” Hank said. “Besides, the more experienced lawyer is busy doing other things. The firm’s commitment to pro bono doesn’t include double-teaming on the file. That’s only for paying clients.”
“But I’m a brand new lawyer.”
“The firm considers this kind of thing good practice.”
“What does the client think?”
“The client doesn’t know,” said Hank. “I mean—I assume you wouldn’t tell them! It’s easy to hide your ignorance. If you get stuck, just tell the client that you haven’t had an issue like this before, you’re going to have to look it up. And that’s just the truth. No matter how experienced, lawyers say something like that practically every day. There’s absolutely no shame in it. Meanwhile, if you get stuck at court because you don’t know the answer to a procedural question—for example, will the file be in the court tomorrow morning or do you have to retrieve the file yourself from the clerk on another floor—you just walk up to another lawyer and ask. Now there’s some great advice. Lawyers at court are almost always willing to answer your questions.”
“What if I screw it up?”
“So what—it’s just some pro bono client from the outer sticks.”
“I am kidding. The answer is that at Ellison & James, you’re not allowed to screw up. That’s why you’re allowed to work on the file all by yourself. Lawyers at this firm don’t screw up. And if you do happen to screw up, well, it’s just a little pro bono matter. What can the firm expect of a brand new lawyer without experience? That would be the reaction by the other lawyers at the firm. It’s not going to cost you your shot at partnership. Even if someone finds out about your screw-up, which, as a practical matter, no one will.”
The firm received plenty of pro bono cases. It was a fantastic form of advertising for a firm that never advertised. The firm could add up the hours its lawyers had spent on pro bono cases and include this figure in the shiny brochures about the firm that were given away for free in the reception areas. Ellison & James: Lawyers for Others. The eviction cases came from a state legal-aid program. I’d read a critique of these legal-aid programs that argued they only became necessary when the cost of legal services had skyrocketed. This had happened long before I came on the scene—I thought lawyers were supposed to cost a lot. Wasn’t that one of the defining points of lawyerdom? How else would lawyers be able to afford a swimming pool and an extra car? (I’d seen the partners’ houses. Swimming pools galore!) But the authors of this critique, well, they considered skyrocketing legal costs a problem. It was undemocratic and had been caused the unfortunate result of the skyrocketing cost of a legal education. Aha! That was an idea I could get behind! My student debt was in the $50,000 range, even after a full scholarship to law school based on my stellar record of academic achievement. The authors of the critique suggested lopping off the third year of law school and cutting the frills across the board. The result: cheaper law-school education, cheaper costs for legal services, and easier availability of legal services for all. Hence, no need for legal aid.
But then—who would the new law school graduates practice on?
None of this was my problem, anyway. At this point, I was a helpless piece of human capital moving along a conveyor belt inside the great factory of the American legal system. I couldn’t do much at this point but go with the flow and pray I didn’t fall off the belt, where I might fall into the churning gears of the invisible inner workings and get both of my arms chewed off. (Although if it happened, I knew who to call—a personal injury lawyer who’d make me rich in the lawsuit lottery!) I was young and willing to play along. I was willing to work all night. Which is exactly what I did, finishing my response to the motion for summary judgment just in time to get to court the following morning, where I worked out a payment schedule for my client that allowed him to remain in his apartment. Then I returned to work to sleep in my office with the door closed.
(If you liked this post, here's something similar from a few years ago, "Lawyer Stories: Partnership," which is also available in a slightly different form in my new book, How to Feed a Lawyer (and Other Irreverent Observations from the Legal Underground)."