Some attorneys still locate pro bono cases through word of mouth from charitable organizations, public interest lawyers or acquaintances. But the ABA, State Bar and coordinating programs encourage attorneys to volunteer through organizations to avoid duplicating efforts and provide the greatest range of legal services to the poor.
One major reason that large firms like to organize their pro bono efforts, often appointing a partner or committee to oversee the voluntary work, is to avoid conflicts of interest with paying clients or among pro bono clients.
Paul Stanford and Richard Keller, who approve \o7 pro bono \f7 projects for the 256-lawyer firm of Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, said firms also need to take an organized approach to assure that firm resources--about 3,500 hours a year or roughly two full-time lawyers in their case--are actually spent on needy people.
Working as Teams
Although individual attorneys from major firms continue to handle individual cases, they are increasingly working as teams on \o7 pro bono \f7 cases in the same way they work for paying clients--and often at the request of beleaguered public service lawyers.
Examples of firm-wide cases include:
- In Washington, the 230-lawyer firm of Hogan & Hartson, which keeps five attorneys working \o7 pro bono \f7 full-time, recently won a federal Appeals Court ruling compelling the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to set field sanitation standards for migrant workers throughout the nation. The firm also represented 12 parents who joined a battle against fundamentalists over textbooks used in Alabama schools.
- Another Washington firm, the 150-attorney office of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, writes model federal, state and city legislation for lobbyists of nonprofit organizations. The firm recently successfully defended the NAACP against charges that blacks were boycotting white merchants in suburban Washington and has won a ruling for the Maine Audubon Society preventing construction of a hydro-power project that would have disrupted fishing in the Penobscot River.
- In New York City, the 200-lawyer firm of Finley, Kumble, Wagner, Heine, Underbers, Manley, Myerson & Casey has been helping low-income residents set up cooperative housing projects. The firm's attorneys also assist Afghans and others in obtaining political asylum and resident alien status.
- In Los Angeles, Public Counsel has enlisted several private firms to crack down on sellers of homes in South-Central Los Angeles who convince buyers to invest their life savings only to lose the home when a surprise balloon payment equal to the original cost comes due.
One of the best known Los Angeles examples of a firm taking on a case designed to accomplish major change benefiting a large number of poor people has been Irell & Manella's work on the homeless case. When a former ACLU intern who had gone to work for the private firm mentioned that her new bosses might like to help as a group, Rosenbaum and Blasi virtually ran to Century City to present their homeless problems.
"Their cookie budget is higher than our Xerox budget," said Blasi, still marveling at the resources available from the private firm. "It's fantastic, a different world from Legal Aid. They put hundreds of pages of legal memoranda, thousands of pages of documents into a computer data base. We do some of that, but not as well."
In addition to the resources and the high-caliber attorneys, Rosenbaum said, bringing a major firm into a poverty case gives the litigation "sort of instant respectability" and makes a statement that influential people consider the issue worthy of the public's attention.
The private attorneys are as enthusiastic about working on impact cases as the poverty lawyers they assist.
Irell & Manella partner Jon Davidson, who has handled scores of individual \o7 pro bono \f7 cases in his eight years as an attorney, said he was most satisfied by the homeless litigation that prompted Los Angeles County to develop shelters instead of handing out vouchers for substandard Skid Row hotels.
"The small cases are frustrating. I always had the sense that I wasn't solving the person's real problem, which was that he was poor. The landlord-tenant case came up because they couldn't afford to pay rent. The uninsured motorist case arose because they couldn't afford to buy insurance," he said. "So although you ended up helping them, I always had the sense that next week they were going to have a very similar problem."
But working together on a case affecting thousands, he said, produced synergistic and energizing effects on him and the firm's other lawyers--perhaps contributing to one of the firm's most profitable years on paying cases despite the outlay for the \o7 pro bono \f7 litigation.
"You had this feeling," Davidson said, "of this army out there proceeding on a definite front."