Friday, August 15, 2008

PRO BONO—A Noble Endeavor . . .

. . .or How We Rationalize Our Maintenance of Artificially High Legal Costs

I want now to focus on another sacred cow of the profession—“pro bono”. I am not against insuring that everyone has access to legal services, I just don’t believe we should deprive people of the dignity of being able to pay for their own services by creating restrictions to practice that keep the cost of legal services artificially high.

For those of you who believe I alone have concerns about the economic-centric nature of this profession; it would be worth looking back more than 20 years ago to 1983 when I was a relatively young lawyer. The profession was trying to demonstrate to the world it was ethical, and ABA House of Delegates Approved the Model Rules of Professional Conduct. A then relatively young ethics professor at NYU, Stephen Gillers, wrote an article about those rules in 1985 in 46 Ohio St L.J. 243, 245-246 entitled “What We Talked About When We Talked About Ethics: A Critical View of the Model Rules. He summarized the article thus:

Close-up, I will argue, little that is flattering. The bar has drafted a code that proves the wisdom of its own precept against client-lawyer conflicts. The lawyers who approved the Rules looked after their own. They have given us an astonishingly parochial, self-aggrandizing document, which favors lawyers over clients, other persons, and the administration of justice in almost every line, paragraph, and provision that permits significant choice. It is internally inconsistent to the bar’s benefit. It continues the practice of using the language of ethics to mask the controls on the availability of services that in turn artificially inflate the cost of services.

My sense is that little has changed since then. Courts still impose artificial restrictions on practice by creating barriers to entry, even among lawyers. The Federal Courts are an embarrassment. If you wanted to try federal cases in the State of New York you have to get admitted 5 different times. The rules are not designed to protect the public; they are designed to protect the power and economic interests of the few, including the judges.

So what do we do; we lament that the lower income members of community do not have access to affordable legal services, because we have done everything we can to insure that is the case, and to make ourselves feel good we deprive them of their dignity by requiring them to take what we offer for free instead of letting the market provide affordable legal services tailored to their needs.

I recently got a request from my local chapter to participate in a pro bono effort they are arranging. I am not admitted in this state so giving advice to private parties would not be prudent, moreover, unless these people have created Superfund sites, have problems with international commercial transactions, or complex corporate tax issues, I would probably not be a lot of help.

-Larry Salibra
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