Advocating for justice

BY JONAS BLANK

A legal education – especially a gold-plated Harvard one – is often described in instrumental terms, as a “ticket to success.” Even mid-recession, a high-paying law firm job is considered a virtual sinecure, almost a right more than a prize. But for people who believe that law school presents an opportunity to right wrongs, to advance ideologies and to alter prevailing paradigms, taking that prize means a painful choice between pay and principles. Law firms – at least those in the OCS database – tend to be ideologically agnostic, turning profits through the routine representation of corporate clients. Whether the client is Enron, Radio Shack or R.J. Reynolds is irrelevant.

As 2Ls going through the OCS recruitment process, Clare Connors and Danny Grooms weren’t satisfied with that state of affairs.

“Every firm we were looking at practiced on a specific side of each issue,” said Grooms. “And on every issue it came down to, I would have wanted to be on the opposite side. There was nothing OCS was doing to present options on both sides of the ‘v.'”

On the less-glamorous side of the “v” are plaintiff’s firms, many of which are finally large and profitable enough to participate in more routine hiring. Lawyers that gravitate to them tend to actually care about whom their clients are and what their injuries have been, with a goal of putting people, not profit, first. Realizing that neither OPIA nor OCS was doing an adequate job of informing students about “private public-interest” firms, Grooms and Connors, both students in Prof. Jon Hanson’s Corporations class, decided to do something to put such firms on the map. Like Hanson, they also wanted to help erase the misguided popular perception of plaintiff’s lawyers as conniving bottom-feeders and portray their work more positively.

Together with Hanson and a handful of other students, they decided to found Punctilio, Inc., a wholly student-owned and operated corporation, of which Grooms and Connors are co-CEOs and Hanson is honorary chairman of the board. The name is derived from Justice Cardozo’s famous quote about the fiduciary duty of corporations: “Not honesty alone, but the punctilio of an honor the most sensitive, is then the standard of behavior ….” he said, “Only thus has the level of conduct for fiduciaries been kept at a level higher than that trodden by the crowd.”

The current staff also includes 3L Josh Blank, its treasurer and accountant, 3L Eric Zacks, who serves as legal counsel, and Tim Cullen, a Boston College law student, who serves as its webmaster. With the help of lawyers from Fried Frank and bankers from Goldman Sachs, the students put together a formal IPO and launched Punctilio, Inc. at the beginning of this year.

Punctilio’s main product is its web site, justadvocates.com, which allows students to find firms that deal with issues such as employment, gay/lesbian rights, personal injury, women’s rights, voting rights, police misconduct and tobacco litigation. Although Connors stresses that Punctilio does not represent any single specific ideology, the corporation’s principal criteria for firms is that “these firms actually care about what clients they have and the point they’re arguing for.” The name’s double entendre reflects Connors’ and Grooms’ ideal: Lawyers should not just be advocates for anything, but ought to be just advocates – fighting for positions and people they believe in.

To that end, the web site offers a discussion forum as well as legal news and links to public interest legal organizations. Grooms and Connors hope to refine the site further in the coming months to allow students to upload resumes and profiles that could be searchable by firms, who would pay a small fee to view the information.

Punctilio’s other primary business is its on-campus forums. Panels such as “Making Career Choices Without Losing Sight of Your Values,” one of two Punctilio has helped sponsor at HLS, have brought plaintiff’s lawyers from firms like Lieff Cabraser together with professors to help students become more aware of their options. And it’s working.

“I have al-ways known that I would work for a public interest firm, but didn’t even know that there were such things as a private public-interest firms that derived most of their revenue from their clients,” said Laura Gundersheim, a 1L who discovered justadvocates.com thr-ough Han-son’s torts class and one of Punc-tilio’s panels. “Many non-profits are not receiving the funding they need to do the type of work that I am interested in, so I decided I would try a private-public interest firm this summer and see if I liked it.”

She ultimately found a job with Milberg Weiss, one of the largest private public-interest firms. Milberg offers compensation, support staff and training similar to large defense firms – and firms like it, while still relatively rare, are increasingly common.

“You’re making good money [with such firms],” said Grooms, who points out that of the top ten highest-paid lawyers in the country, all are plaintiff’s lawyers. “And you can feel good about it. There need to be good lawyers on both sides.”

But finding a summer private public-interest job – especially one that pays – is still not easy.

“These people are looking for people interested in the specific work they’re doing,” said Grooms. “Defense firms are very well-funded, and they have repeat business from their corporate clients. Plaintiff’s firms don’t have that. Most plaintiffs are not repeat players.”

Because plaintiff’s firms don’t tend to have such steady income – and seek associates who care about the specific ideological stances they take – their hiring can be both more selective and unpredictable, making it impossible for them to go through formalized on-campus interviewing like that provided by Career Services. Many are also unable to pay their summer associates. Still, Grooms notes, “a lot of opportunities are going overlooked.”

“I think justadvocates.com is filling a very good niche,” said Career Services Director Mark Weber. “Private public-interest firms often tend to fall between the cracks between the private sector and the public sector.”

Although such firms do make profits and pay larger salaries, Weber notes, they tend to look more like public interest organizations, which are typically smaller in size and have concurrently lower turnover rates and less predictable needs every year. Even among large private public-interest firms like Milberg, lower turnover rates and volatile profit patterns make hiring a more selective and difficult process.

Although Weber does not plan to create an on-campus interviewing process for plaintiff-side firms, he does hope to add plaintiff’s firms and other small firms to OCS’ planned on-line database next year. Although that would still not make small firms as accessible as those that arrive for OCI every year, it would at least make such firms as easy to search for as their larger counterparts. And while its listings are less extensive and organized than those on justadvocates, OPIA also provides resources for finding private public-interest firms. The office was instrumental in helping Punctilio to bolster its listings during its startup, and has also helped co-sponsor its panels.

But along with Punctilio’s plans for expansion, the company also has a more pressing concern. Grooms, Connors and their associates are all graduating this year, and they need students to take over the company.

“We want to keep it student-run,” Grooms said. “Clare and I plan to continue with it, but we would also like to have Harvard people involved, especially to run the panels.”

The pay may not be the best – Grooms and Connors have yet to make a dime on the operation, which currently derives all its revenue from advertising and puts all profits back into operations – but the experience, both agree, is more than worth it.

“It has definitely kept us busy,” Connors said. “But it’s a pretty fun thing to be able to say you’re CEO of a corporation.”

Probably doesn’t look bad on a resume, e
ither.

Comments