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A Modest Pro Bono

Dear Wormwood,

I've slightly overshot Columbia's 40 hour pro bono requirement for graduation, or at least I suspect I will when I finally fill in the forms. On the other hand, quite a few 3Ls of my acquaintance have complained to me recently of their frantic efforts to fulfill their responsibilities under this dubious virtue tax.

At the same time, I've overheard a number of 1Ls murmuring that, despite a fresh influx of funds from Columbia, there are still not enough positions in the Human Rights Internship Program. Thus many fledgling do-gooders find themselves seeking summer jobs that may not be spiritually satisfying. It seems that while their elders are looking for work, they're looking for money.

It's a pity that Foundations of the Regulatory State is no longer a required class, because in my day almost every 1L covered the obvious solution to this problem. To ensure the maximum amount of happiness among Columbia students while making sure we contribute our fair share--whatever we collectively decide that is--we should institute a trading system similar to that used for pollution emissions. [1]

As you might expect, Wormwood, those who are inclined towards public interest (and not coincidentally, most often the political left) collect far more than the 40 hours they're required to contribute. On the other hand, those for whom the requirement is a mostly unnecessary hassle are swiftly heading towards more or less lucrative careers. The obvious solution is to allow 3Ls to bid for and purchase pro bono hours from overproducers. The funds could then be used to sponsor 1Ls summering in exotic and underserved locales such as South Africa, eastern Europe or the Bronx.

Collectively, there is no doubt this is a winning formula. It's not too much of an assumption to think that those who want to do pro bono work will do it more productively, so our "good causes" however defined will receive better resources. We would be able to guarantee a certain amount of public interest work: after all, there's a floor beneath which hours cannot fall, and we can raise that to much higher than 40 hours per student. At the same time, HRIP receives more funding without having to increase tuition across the student body, producing even more socially enlightened output.

Wormwood, this seems a most sensible course by any tangible measurement. Yet my tongue is firmly in my cheek and I would never expect such a system to take hold. At the end of the day, the pro bono requirement isn't really about making sure that good causes receive useful (or enthusiastic) resources. Nothing so grubbily consequentialist should enter the publicly-spirited mind! To talk to a true believer, it's all about opening our minds, enlightening our souls and making us think that an industry supporting starting salaries of nearly $150,000 at the elite level is being done in a spirit of "professionalism," that is to say in the service of the public rather than the practitioners.

I put it to you that at the end of three years of law school, it is very difficult to avoid the level of cynicism required to say that with a straight face. And if three years of law school doesn't isn't enough, a brief glance at your debt burden should do it.

Ah well. For me it's almost over. As I mentioned to one complaining 3L, don't think of it as enforced charity. Think of it as a virtue tax, in which you take from whatever you consider virtuous and pay to what the Center for Public Interest Law considers such.

[1]: Often called "cap and trade" systems, emissions trading works to reduce a negative externality through a pricing system. What I'm proposing wouldn't be a cap and trade system, as it has no caps. Rather, trading would be used to maximize a positive externality. On the other hand, "floor and trade" seems a particularly clumsy phrase, and so I haven't used it.

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Comments

Wormwood, darling! You're back! It's been quite a while since I last saw you amidst the sulfur fumes in the Burning Pits!
I like your trading system, I think it should be implemented. In fact, I propose the further enhancement that all legal professionals must make public their pro bono trading history on request. Humour aside, for me pro bono also serves another function you seem to have overlooked: the necessarily money-based nature of the legal system creates natural injustices in cases where one party cannot afford legal representation.
Bateleur: In fact, I propose the further enhancement that all legal professionals must make public their pro bono trading history on request. Not only don't I disagree with you--or think it's humorous--my Note was mostly about how to make such disclosure not only mandatory but cheap and effective. I agree, the amount of pro bono work done by lawyers should be a matter of mandatory disclosure so long as we're a self-regulating profession. the necessarily money-based nature of the legal system creates natural injustices in cases where one party cannot afford legal representation Of course, pro bono work doesn't really address this problem. For instance, consider the landlord who owns a low-rent building faced with a fourth-floor tenant who--against the express terms of their lease--installs a washing machine in their apartment, an appliance that regularly floods and is damaging not only the third-floor ceiling but also part of the 2nd floor room. (Note that fixing this problem may require evacuating the third-floor tenant.) Given his very thin profit margin, the landlord probably can't afford the representation and legal fees necessary to enjoin (let alone evict) the 4th floor tenant. Nevertheless, the fact that he's above poverty level will probably keep anyone from doing "pro bono" work on his behalf. In a real sense, he can't afford a legal solution to his problem, but you'd play merry hell getting pro bono credit in most cases. But this injustice isn't one that gets the intelligentia weepy-eyed, you see. I reject your premise: so long as we're a self-regulating profession, there's nothing that's "necessarily" money-based about the legal system. And we could of course require a certain amount of pro bono representation as a result of being certified. (Japan, so I'm told, does this to a degree.) But we don't.

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