A new pro bono plan

BY RAFFI MELKONIAN

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article complaining about our pro bono service requirement. As some may remember, my specific objection was that the program is both too broad (in that it allows people to fulfill the requirements through service that is obviously not pro-bono, such as DOJ work) and somewhat counterproductive. After all, how virtuous is public service performed under coercion?

Helpfully enough, the Spring 2005 edition of the Harvard Law Bulletin contains a series of articles discussing the new requirement. But the magazine’s coverage of the regime is unrelentingly positive – even the few students who voice some skepticism in the article are those that eventually saw the light and enjoyed their projects. Now, some of this has to do with the fact that alumni magazines are meant to be upbeat publications, designed to remind our predecessors how useful HLS was to their careers and professional development. I have no objection to that mission – 3L or not, I think the law school is a great place. But I still wonder whether the articles should have been so one-sided, covering many people’s distaste for the pro bono requirement behind the somewhat misleading statistic that many students do 400 hours of credited work.

But it’s unfair of me to spend all my energies castigating the current system. As I wrote in the previous article, I do think pro bono work is important. And the law school should encourage it. Rather than simply remove the pro bono requirement, therefore, I think it should be replaced with an incented, but voluntary system designed to get people into some really gratuitous work. How could we do this? Simple – offer credits and prestige, just like in the real world, in return for service.

At my large 2L law firm (like most big firms), pro bono work was thought to be a good thing, if your hours permitted – therefore, associates were expected to bill the time spent on such projects, and their efforts were taken into account when the partners looked over the performance of their charges. Similarly, we could offer students 1 credit hour for every 40 hours of completely gratuitous service completed per semester, up to a maximum of 3 credits. Summer placements at the DOJ wouldn’t count, nor would any other work receiving public interest funding – what would count is the kind of work we’re supposed to be doing pro bono; the defense and representation of the indigent. The proffered credit, perhaps at an “A” grade, would certainly help encourage people to participate.

Pro bono work at big firms isn’t only encouraged through the billing of hours, but through the esteem people who do something memorable are held. And firms in general compete for high profile pro bono cases – lawyers aren’t known for restraining themselves when an opportunity to outdo their colleagues is at hand. Similarly, we could appeal to HLS students’ legendary hunt for prestige by offering a distinction like “pro bono scholar” to anyone who completed the maximum 120 hours of gratuitous service. Certainly, the distinction wouldn’t have the heft of summa cum laude, but being able to layer one more thing on a resume couldn’t possibly hurt – and students would now be able to signal their commitment to being public service oriented lawyers to interested parties in a more official way.

Obviously, the law firm comparison only goes so far. Legitimate questions can be raised, of course, about the commitment of the biggest firms to public service – when it comes down to it, a corporate lawyer has a responsibility to do her work before anything else. But the basic idea – that people can be encouraged to serve the public by partly appealing to their selfish instincts, is right. Implementing that kind of voluntary system would improve the purity of Harvard’s commitment to pro bono work, and make the program a real mark of pride for the school. We should give the idea a chance.

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