No more pro bono

BY RAFFI MELKONIAN

I recently finished filling out the required paperwork for my 40 hour pro bono requirement – graduation is sneaking up, and I’m told that I won’t be allowed to leave unless I finish. Before saying anything else, I just want to note that our public service office was universally excellent in helping me get things done – flexible, accommodating, and friendly. But the program itself is both flawed and undesirable – and we’d be better off getting rid of it entirely.

There’s no doubt that pro bono work is a good thing. Of course, it’s good because you can often help people who don’t have other legal representation – the stories that lawyers at my summer firm told of helping asylum seekers escape the overzealous procedures of our immigration service were inspiring. But pro bono work is also good for instrumental reasons. For one thing, it clearly helps young lawyers get front-line experience earlier than they would otherwise. Even transactional lawyers can hone their speaking skills in front of courts they would never see if left to their own devices. For the most cynical among us, pro bono work even seems useful in fending off political criticism – as one advocacy web site I recently visited explained, the republican judicial nominee they opposed was a fiendish apparition of conservative ideology despite the substantial time he spent helping indigent defendants. We’ve hopefully not reached the point where people are volunteering in order to provide themselves with Senate confirmation insurance, but I put nothing past either side of our political divide.

Nonetheless, our program needs reform. First, the design itself is flawed. Particularly, work at the Department of Justice or other government agencies shouldn’t be counted toward any service requirement. Don’t get me wrong – I had a great time at my DOJ job during the summer after 1L, and would recommend the office to anyone. But to suggest that working for an agency supported by the full weight of the Federal government is consistent with the idea of volunteering legal time to help the indigent is absurd. I’d have spent my summer at the DOJ regardless of any pro bono requirement, and telling my classmates who worked at firms instead that they now need to undertake often-burdensome extracurricular projects to fulfill their requirement is unfair. If the pro bono requirement is to mean anything, it should force all of us to go out of our way to help someone. The only interest I served in my 1L summer was my own.

Even more fundamentally, however, the pro bono requirement shouldn’t exist at all. As one speaker at the law school recently reminded us, virtue coerced is no virtue at all. What the pro bono requirement produces instead of virtue, indeed, is resentment – justified by the law school’s puzzling judgment that a campus full of vibrant, smart, and involved people can’t be trusted to be generous with their time without the school’s paternalistic eye hovering over everyone’s shoulder. And if students do stop volunteering when the pro bono requirement is lifted, then that’s excellent evidence that the school is failing in its duty to encourage the charitable exercise of our nascent legal power. Papering over that kind of discouraging truth with a universal service requirement seems, to me, deeply undesirable.

Ultimately, the pro bono requirement isn’t much of a horror. We all somehow satisfy the requirements and graduate. But if we’re actually concerned with fostering life-time commitment to public service in a real sense, rather than merely projecting a possibly false image of charitable virtue outwards, our current program needs reform. I hope, as smarter minds than mine tackle changes in the curriculum, that the pro bono program comes up for examination as well.

Raffi Melkonian is a 3L who fulfilled his pro bono requirement.

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