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Public Disinterest

Dear Wormwood:

If you're the type of person who has a burning interest in social justice, a determination that life's unfairnesses should be bludgeoned out on the anvil of law, or a desire to take up arms and journey into the raging havocs of identity politics, then Columbia University offers something for you: a mandatory 40 hours of pro bono work that you must do to complete your degree. In the past few weeks, I've received emails inviting me to help battered immigrant women, work studying 1st amendment restrictions since 9/11, or campaign for prisoners' rights, among other ideas for the great and worthy. It this is your cup of tea, I can't recommend the program more highly.

If it isn't, I recommend you keep reading this blog. This requirement is likely to be a recurring theme for Letters to Wormwood, and I'll give you every bit of my help on getting through, and even enjoying, this requirement. If nothing else, you'll get to learn from my mistakes.

The topic comes to my mind because of a conversation I had during the Dean's drinks reception last night (a beautiful event, incidentally), with a young lady whose path to law school was preceded by a great deal of human rights work. Obviously, our views differed over the efficacy of the pro bono requirement: to her, this was a part of the law that we should all know about, like contracts or torts; whereas I tend to look at it as a sort of tax, wherein I give forty hours of my time to some cause I probably don't believe in for the receipt of a degree. My charitable work will be done elsewhere, in areas that probably don't involve law, as befits someone who thinks law is a poor tool for social change.

The argument for this requirement is always that it does a lot of good, and that certainly everyone can find something to do that doesn't clash too badly with their beliefs. And perhaps that's true, although I've already mentioned how The Center for Public Interest Law is not always the most welcoming place to members of my political persuasion. But being forced to do forty hours of public service takes much of the joy, and all of the virtue, out of tasks that I might choose to pursue anyway. Near as I can tell, a 'public service program' here is pretty much defined as 'opposing a monied or conservative interest.'

But I must confess to a certain excitement about the requirement, keeping in mind G. K. Chesterton's axiom that "an inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered." As my companion last night pointed out, the requirement will force me to do something I wouldn't otherwise consider. I'm sorely tempted to sign up for something like prisoners' rights or anti-death penalty work, simply because it gives me a chance to test my beliefs while in the line of fire. Obviously were I (or you, dear Wormwood) to choose to do so, it's incumbent upon me to give every bit of my effort to whatever cause it is, but that's a challenge that should not prove insurmountable. And armchair faith is tepid in comparison to something proven.

I have to pause and smile, however, when I consider that those who say one should challenge ones faith are very rarely those who actually do so themselves. One of my friends here confessed to the fact that before Columbia they'd never really had a friend who was Republican. Nor do I expect to see those who are reflexively anti-Christian signing up to spend time in a missionary soup kitchen. Those who most advocate sleeping with the enemy seem to do so only at the suggestion that it is their bedchambers to be opened.

Take heart, though, dear Wormwood: at least metaphorically, it suggests that we're better in bed.


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» Letters to Wormwood from Blawg Wisdom
Anthony at Three Years of Hell to Become the Devil is now entering his second year of law school at Columbia, but since beginning his three years he's been writing a series of commentaries and tips for getting through law... [Read More]

» Letters to Wormwood from Blawg Wisdom
Anthony at Three Years of Hell to Become the Devil is now entering his second year of law school at Columbia. He offers an extensive series of commentaries and tips for getting through law school, all of which he's kindly... [Read More]


Life must be a bitch sometimes for those of y'all whose idea of pro bono is giving free tax advice over drinks at GOP fundraisers. ;-) But surely there's got to be some sort of apolitical pro bono work to be done? One of the few times I felt comfortable with the law was, as a third year student in the Northwestern Legal Clinic I conducted the uncontested hearing that ended with a poor black woman getting the divorce she wanted to get her life back on track. Her sincere gratitude once the judge granted the divorce made up for the almost three years of hell I'd endured up to that. In a way, it's almost a pity that the only other incident in my legal career that was as gratifying was the day I walked away from the law never to return.
Well, OK, let's think of the kind of things that inspired me to get into the law: Anger at the use of law to punish tobacco companies for selling a perfectly legal product, by forces too lazy to use legislation Annoyance at using the hammer of the law to punish Microsoft for having made a pretty decent product Watching Texas banks jump through hoops in order to qualify local lending acts, settling often baseless lawsuits in order to keep their names out of the paper. (OK, that and watching Perry Mason when I was six.) Somehow, I think the Center for Public Interest Law would be fundamentally uninterested in helping me work against any of those causes, even though freedom to smoke what I want, sell what I want, and lend money to whosoever I choose might be seen as a matter of public interest. Besides, you can't represent a tobacco company pro bono, simply because they have money. I'm not saying there is nothing I could do as pro-bono work, but there's nothing I would choose to do absent the requirement: I think law is a good tool for stability and a bad tool to change the world, and I'd choose to do my charity with different tools. I'll admit I need to do some more research into this: the members of the Federalist Society all have to meet their requirements, and I'm sure they've come up with some nifty ideas. But for the most part, I find the requirement seems to be a good way for you lefties to sop you conscience and subsidize your works by controlling the gates the later prosperity: who says the left doesn't like slave labor? ;-) Ah, Len, I love it whenever I see one of your posts has arrived: between you and Martin you're my favorite left-wing commentators here. But you've actually given me one good idea: there's probably some pro-bono tax work I could do that would be right up my alley. Drinks at GOP fundraisers would just be a bonus.
We'll agree to disagree for the nonce whether Microsoft makes "a pretty decent product"; the week I had to apply several security patches in a row, including one which broke a database app we use here at the College, and then about a week later when I had to patch one of the patches because the first one wasn't done right, I was even less an admirer of the Beast of Redmond than I usually am. :-) Personally, even as a left winger I'd be willing to extend the concept of pro bono to include offering free or reduced fee (perhaps as a contribution to the Law School or something?) to startups and very small and/or struggling businesses. It might well provide some good legal education too, which in theory is a significant part of a law school's mission, eh? Or would that somehow provoke the wrath of the private bar?
I don't know, and that is a pretty creative solution. And for all my griping, I'm interested in some creative solutions. This is a 2L problem, so I won't start looking into it for a few months, but that's a pretty good idea: if I could do some corporate work for small startups, or maybe (considering how much Scheherazade likes it) some bankruptcy work.... But at least what they push at you is the standard array of human rights/victims rights/let's hang out with folks who are going to do nothing but make wisecracks about the right organizations. (With the exception of some work with prosecutors, which also looks pretty entertaining.)
I'm almost 100% positive that you could get your 40 hours of pro bono work working for a tobacco company's law firm. There are plenty of research assignments (i.e., the ol' 50 state survey) that would be open for you to pursue. Just contact a tobacco defense firm and tell them your situation. Who knows, it might provide you with an opportunity to meet some high-powered partners and get you a job post-law school.
The aformentioned advice, of course, is contingent on Columbia *not* having a ridiculous pro bono requirement as to the type of organizations one volunteers for . . .
Okay, this will sound strange because the same day you were griping about having to do public interest work I was posting about how I can't seem to say no to pro bono clients, but I feel your pain, kiddo. I'll explain later. I think compelled "volunteer" work is a crock.
You'll be happy to know CPIL is sponsering a Pro-Bono on the Left day next month (though we have to wait and see what qualifies as left for CPIL).
Deborah, the idea boggles. If there's a Pro-Bono on the Left day next month, what does the CPIL think it's doing the other 364 days of the year? Update: After a conversation with Deborah, she's now pointed out that it's actually Pro Bono from the Right, so I'll probably be in attendance.
How tightly does Columbia restrict your choices? There are dozens of right wing public interest law firms out there these days. The Alliance Defense Fund litigates Christian and Family issues. The Pacific Legal Foundation. Foundation for Rights in Education (FIRE). The National Right to Work Legal Defense Fund. You can jump in there defending homeshcoolers or churches. I notice that most of the right wing PI action in the NYC Metro Area involves property rights. The Institute for Justice has done a lot in Atlantic City (against takings) and further North against zoning restrictions that keep multifamily developments out of the suburbs (a racial justice and property rights issue). There's also been anti-reg action on small businesses (usually Black) on subjects like barbershop licensing and car service licensing. If you look around I'm sure you can find PB work protecting the downtrodden against the government in ways that will really piss off the Left.
Georgetown pushes the pro bono thing pretty hard, too (though it's not technically mandatory yet). Fortunately there are plenty of conservative and libertarian public interest litigation shops in DC. I hooked up with CIR and spent two days a week for six weeks doing low-level grunt work. It wasn't glamorous, but the next year when the Michigan affirmative action cases went up I knew them inside-out. Other options that leap to mind are the Institute for Justice and the Landmark Legal Foundation. In New York I'd check out the Manhattan Institute's Center for Legal Policy.
Penn's leftist slave labor requirement is 70 hours. Like you, I'm not sure whether to sleep with the enemy and do something like the Cardozo Technicality Project, or to look for one of the FedSoc's creative solutions.

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