Tuesday, January 14, 2020
New York Law Journal, Another Path for Public Service: Pro Bono in Big Law:
A growing number of young lawyers today say they want to use their law degrees to take on the world’s challenges, which seem to grow knottier every day. According to the Stanford Social Innovation Review, the “Millennial generation wants to create social impact with their skills and talent, and not just with their checkbooks or by spending a day in the soup kitchen.” The Pro Bono Institute likewise notes that many lawyers say they want to make a difference in the lives of others and the fate of the planet and “demand a sense of purpose” in their work.
At the same time, recent graduates can face some seriously scary debts, which often take years or even decades to pay off. Law School Transparency, a non-profit organization, found that 75% of 2018 law school graduates took students loans. These students on average borrowed about $115,000 to pay for law school. This amount may be on top of additional debt from their undergraduate studies, as the Pew Research Center reports that the percentage of young adult households with any student debt has doubled in the last 20 years. New lawyers going straight into public service can participate in law school loan-forgiveness programs, but even those require up to a 10-year commitment of work at a legal service provider or NGO. Once there, lawyers do incredibly important and rewarding work but just like lawyers in corporate practice can face long hours, frustration and burnout.
Navigating between “doing well” and “doing good” has traditionally required picking either a corporate or a public service path. There is still no magic bullet, but because of how big firms have evolved, there is a counter-intuitive and increasingly attractive option. These days there are great opportunities to do enormously powerful public interest work in large private firms—with the firms actively seeking the work, encouraging it and supporting it financially.
Today’s big law firms are doing pro bono work on a scale and of a quality never before seen. Some can comfortably do 100,000 pro bono hours or more in a year and take on staggeringly large and complicated rights cases, devoting to them the same kinds of resources and supervision that large corporate matters get. The firms are of course comfortable with such complex cases, because they routinely handle them for commercial clients. Big firms have in place the infrastructure, multi-office platform, shared knowledge base, and cutting-edge litigation and research tools to handle the most challenging cases, all of which can be brought to bear on big pro bono matters.