Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Something for nothing.

I received a phone call from a friend today. She left me a voicemail asking whether I knew a good family lawyer who could step into a difficult and disturbing case pronto. She was being sweet, reaching out to me on behalf of a friend and, knowing her as I do, that doesn't surprise me.

But (oh yes, there's always a 'but') she made the same request SO many people have made to me over the years when asking for a lawyer: "She doesn't have any money so I'm looking for someone to do it pro bono."

Now, here's the thing. Lawyers, like everyone, should volunteer either time or money to those less fortunate.

But I've noticed that the non-lawyer public seems to feel that if they or a friend is in a sticky situation, they should be able to get a lawyer to help them for free. It's as if by throwing the words 'pro bono' into the question, all is as it should be. And the stickier the situation, the free-er the representation should be.

And I don't get it. Truthfully, it shouldn't affect me because I work for the State and don't represent individuals (I save the world in a more general way). But so many criminal defense lawyers work themselves to a frazzle for very little money, very often for clients who pay nothing at all. I hear them complaining about it all the time (as they should).

But who else works for free? Oh, sure, lawyers can save someone from prison, can stop a child from being taken away, can. . . do all kinds of important stuff. And the immediacy and urgency seem to, frequently, be the reason for the pro bono request.

But imagine you're having a heart attack - would you call a heart surgeon and ask for a pro bono bypass? Or let's say your basement floods, would you phone Pete's 24-Hour Plumbing and ask for an immediate and pro bono patch up? No, of course not. In fact, put like that it sounds silly, doesn't it?

So why, do you think, are lawyers the frequent and only targets of the "will you work for free" request?


  1. Actually, people DO want a pro-bono bypass--"health care is a right". (note that's a quote, not my opinion)

  2. Mark, that is a very good point. Though here is my "but". It's true the lawyers get a lot of request for "pro bono" work, but I am in IT and when friends or, especially, family have a computer problem, guess who they call. And of course they want, even expect, that I will do it for "free".

  3. Good point. No, I wouldn't expect a heart surgeon to operate on me for free. That's a good way to look at it.

  4. Perhaps one of the few things musicians and lawyers have in common! Musicians are often asked to play for free for benefits and the like.

  5. Sevesteen: that's totally inapposite. People who support universal health care do not expect doctors to work for free - they want for everyone to pay for health care through their taxes rather than at the point of service. In contrast, those who expect free legal services on demand are not clamoring for the government to pay attorneys fair compensation for those services; they're just acting like entitled children. Agree fully with DAC.

  6. Physicians are often asked for pro bono medical advice in wildly awkward and inappropriate circumstances. To save the expense and time of an office visit, some people think nothing of partially disrobing in the buffet line at a wedding reception.

  7. I think people think there's not much to the whole lawyering thing. I can tell you from the civil side (I'm not an attorney but I work for one) that a lot of things go on behind the scenes that people have no idea are going on. There is a lot of work involved even in simple matters. There are occasions when civil lawyers will help friends and ask them to pay only the filing fees and you should see peoples' jaws drop when they find out how much it can cost to file a simple petition or motion. (In some cases, it's well over $100 just for the attorney to formally enter their appearance.) I think people think that all attorneys do is sit behind their desks all day shuffling paperwork--so why can't you just make a few phone calls for me? There's a lot more to it. I definitely think attorneys should do pro bono work but also I think the general public has very little sense of just how much work is involved in litigation--and as I said, you don't just show up in court, there are filing fees!

  8. When I passed the bar, my father congratulated me then added, "I'm so proud to have a lawyer in the family. Here is my list of enemies."

    How could I turn down a little pro bono enemy crushing?

  9. Because lawyers are like all those dogs in NYC who cracked up and had to see shrinks after the pooper-scooper law was introduced. Seems that, in spite of all the huffing, puffing and squeezing, when they checked behind, there was no there there.

  10. Nursing Homes!!!! Why on earth do people move money around and hide things to get the nasty, free government nursing home?!?


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