Friday, August 20, 2010

Hey, Brother, Can You Spare A Partnership?

I once stumbled upon a description of my dream job in a John Grisham novel. (I don't recall which one, they do tend to look a like from a distance.) A firm rolling with cash had one partner devoted to pro bono work. He was paid handsomely, never had to worry about fees, and was free to dive head first into bewildering complexity without having to cover his overhead. That's the job I want.

The job I have is head of a small firm composed of three full-time lawyers, an of counsel lawyer, paralegals, assistants and an office manager. We don't have institutional clients. What we have is overhead and attitude. It's the attitude that attracts plenty of phone calls and letters; more phone calls and letters, frankly, than we can respond to with ease. The overhead is what keeps me up at night.

So I read with envy the report in this morning's New York Times about young lawyers given year-long paid deferments from big law firms to work on the public interest side. The bar's elite can be paid a stipend of $60,000 or so to stay away from their shop and go to work in a less remunerative area of the law. One young man, Nathan Richardson, worked for an environmental police group; another young lawyer decided to work in a public defender's office. Imagine being paid by big law to do public interest work?

"The rich are different than you and me," F. Scott Fitzgerald once said. That's certainly true in the practice of law. I cannot imagine what it must be like to be well-financed and capable of choosing how to spend your largess. We're more like the little Dutch boy with only so many fingers and a dike leaking in far too many places. How can we remain afloat as the dam threatens to burst?

I spent a day not long ago answering correspondence from folks, mostly prisoners, seeking representation. Some had been abused physically by guards, many had medical issues that were unaddressed by prison officials, some sought counsel about issues relating to their release date. Almost all of them made clear that they were seeking pro bono representation. It was overwhelming. At some level I felt something almost like anger: It seemed a long line of folks had formed consisting of folks who had decided that I was just the guy to give them my services free of charge. I had to turn down these folks with apologies: a tough economy makes it hard to take all the cases we would like to take. But even if I practiced at the Law Offices of Croesus, I couldn't have taken all these cases. There is so much need; so much sorrow.

And then a letter arrived from London, from an international human rights group. A prisoner not far from here is being force-fed against his will. Can we assist? At once, my imagination is engaged. A man in the belly of the beast has lost all, his liberty, his reputation and his autonomy. Now the state seeks to deprive him even of his right to protest the terms of confinement. The state will keep the man alive solely to imprison him. This is shades of the Michael Ross case all over again. He was the death-row inmate who decided to seek no further appeals. He decided that after more than 15 years of fighting he just wanted to die. Frankly, I supported that decision: Who are we to tell a person they must live? "Be careful," a staff member tells me. "This is case is a financial black hole."

But black holes seem to be all I know. This morning another potential client calls. He's been advised by other lawyers that the wrong he seeks to right may be beyond repair. "It's a one in a million chance," he tells me. "That's why I called you." My heart sinks. I wonder if I would recognize a sure winner if it walked in the door? I tell him I cannot do the work for free: he'd need to pay a fee. But already I'm liking his odds. One in a million means that all hope is not lost. I am David, looking for the perfect stone to cast at giants.

All these fights and so little time. Nowhere in legal fiction have I seen the economic reality of running a small firm portrayed. Folks don't just tumble through the door with small fortunes to pay for legal fees. Staff members need to get paid; the lights must be turned on; bills arrive daily. All these fights and so few clients able to pay for them. Every day a new request for pro bono service; every day another David asking for justice against Goliath. I realize now that my it is frustration and not anger that I feel.

The rich do live different kinds of lives. So do partners at big firms. So do associates at those firms. I'm envious. I've made a pet of the wolf who stalks our door. Even so, I am envious. So what do you say ye titans of the megafirms? Can you spare a partnership for a lawyer with a lot of fight and little economic sense?

I already know the answer. I don't expect the phone to ring with your call. Instead, the next caller will no doubt be desperate and broke. He'll need a lawyer. Odds are he won't be calling big law.