I am pleased to post this blog post, in which Esther Lardent of the Pro Bono Institute responds, taking a much appreciated and more optimistic take, to my recent post on the implications of changes in large firms.
Richard Zorza’s June 26 blog post – “Implications for the Access to Justice Coalition of Large Firm Trends” – makes an important point: lawyers in certain practice settings – smaller firms and solos, for example – have been far less active in the access to justice movement than their colleagues in major law firms. In fact, some of these smaller practitioners have led the opposition to delivery innovations designed to make personal legal services more affordable and tailored to client needs and access to the courts and other tribunals simpler and more comprehensible. The vast majority of lawyers in the US are employed in smaller practice settings, and it is essential that they understand that the work being done to enhance access to justice is not a threat to their livelihood or professional role; rather, it is among the most critical ethical obligations of all lawyers AND it actually offers promising new sources of clients and legal work.
To make his point, however, Zorza makes a long leap, assuming that large firms’ focus on generating upscale legal work and revenues – in other words, becoming more “business-like” – threatens the credibility of large firms (and perhaps their enthusiasm) for supporting access to justice. As someone who has worked with these firms for many years, I do not agree.
Zorza’s blog post stems from a New York Times op-ed piece decrying the recent decision by Weil, Gotschal & Manges to layoff close to 200 attorneys and staff. I do not presume to make any judgment about the appropriateness or wisdom of that decision, nor to predict whether other firms will follow that practice by “right-sizing” their practices to reflect a changing legal market. It is certainly the case that large law firms are committed to being as business-like as possible in the face of an uneven recovery from the Great Recession, lessened client demand, and an intensely competitive marketplace. In my experience, however, that is not new: large firms have been growing increasingly business-like for the past two decades.
Will the attention to revenues by large firms decrease their lawyers’ involvement with access to justice – or make them less credible spokepersons for our cause? No. The strong commitment to access to justice among large law firms, and their concrete demonstration of that commitment through millions of hours of pro bono service and substantial financial contributions annually has become more vibrant, visible, and institutionalized over the past two decades, while firms have also become more business-like in their practices. Large law firms are giving their money – and, even more important, their time – to support access to justice, and they will continue to do so. While it seems counter-intuitive, law firms can be – and are- both profit-motivated and deeply committed to the public good. What is particularly notable is that, increasingly, large businesses are also expanding their good citizenship activities while retaining a laser-like focus on revenues and profits.
Corporate social responsibility (sometimes referred to as the “triple bottom line” is a growing concern and focus for the largest corporations in the US and the world. The recognition that revenues alone do not define or ensure a successful enterprise – that environmental sustainability and service to others – is growing among these mega-companies. The Pro Bono Institute’s Corporate Pro Bono project, in partnership with the Association of Corporate Counsel, has seen the number of in-house corporate legal departments with formal pro bono programs grow from just three at in 2000 to hundreds today. Outside of the legal profession, these corporations have publicly committed billions of hours of skill-based volunteer service to their communities. Maybe, just maybe, we are in an era where the definition of “business-like” behavior is changing to mean more than simply profits. Certainly, as long as legal aid and public interest programs continue to welcome large firm lawyers into their work and their world, they will continue to be among the most passionate and effective supporters of access to justice.