After extensive vetting, plaintiffs firm Butler Tobin is giving away $100,000 to three charities that help people in the developing world: the Against Malaria Foundation, Evidence Action’s “Deworm the World Initiative” and GiveDirectly.
That’s a lot of money for the small plaintiffs firm that partners Jeb Butler and Darren Tobin, both in their mid-30s, started less than five years ago. Besides the founders, the firm has just one other lawyer, Alyssa Baskam, and three paralegals.
Butler Tobin selected charities that aid the people who need it most worldwide—and at a very low cost per person helped, Butler said. Each charity will received one-third of the $100,000.
“We want the money to do the most good for the most people,” he explained, adding that he and Tobin were inspired by Princeton applied ethics professor Peter Singer’s 2013 TED talk on “effective altruism.”
Butler and Tobin said they agreed when they formed their plaintiffs firm in 2014 that they’d start giving away a percentage of the profits once they hit a certain profit threshold. They hit that mark last year. (The partners declined to specify the threshold or percentage.)
Some have assumed, they said, that the big charitable donation was prompted by the final settlement of a wrongful death case that secured an eye-popping $150 million Decatur County jury verdict against Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. Butler was co-counsel with his father, lead plaintiffs counsel James Butler Jr. of Butler Wooten & Peak, in the suit over a Jeep fuel tank that exploded after a collision and killed a 4-year-old child. The Georgia Supreme Court earlier this year upheld the trial court’s denial of a new trial motion by Chrysler in exchange for the plaintiffs accepting a $40 million judgment instead, and Chrysler paid it, plus interest, in April.
But the Chrysler verdict wasn’t a factor, Butler and Tobin said, because the $100,000 donation is based on their firm’s 2017 income.
“We hit [the threshold] again this year, so we’ll do it again next year,” Butler said.
“We are really fired up about doing this,” he added. “We wanted to make a difference in the lives of people who needed it, and we love these three organizations.”
The Against Malaria Foundation provides insecticidal mosquito nets to areas in the developing world where malaria kills thousands of people—for under $5 per net. Evidence Action provides treatments for less than 50 cents a dose against parasitic worms that infest polluted water and cause schistosomiasis, which can cause learning disabilities and delayed development.
GiveDirectly identifies families most in need and transfers cash directly to them via cellphone-linked payment services.
The charity-vetting nonprofit GiveWell ranks the three among its top nine global charities.
Butler Tobin in early July set up a webpage to announce the giving project and asked for applications from charities to help them decide the maximally beneficial way to spend the $100,000.
“We’re good at being lawyers. We’re not good at professional philanthropy,” Butler explained.
Butler and Tobin reviewed more than 60 applications and then asked their colleagues—Baskam and paralegals Sarah Christy, Devin Ripley and Jenny Kafer—for input on which charities the firm should choose.
“It was hard to say no to some very worthwhile organizations,” Tobin said.
Asked if it’s self-serving to publicize their big donation, Tobin replied that the plaintiffs firm could get more advertising impact by spending the $100,000 directly on marketing. If people hire Butler Tobin because of its charitable contributions and those cases add to the firm’s income, that will increase the amount it gives next year, he added.
“We hope to spread the ‘effective altruism’ idea among the Georgia legal community,” Butler said. “The effect of the money you give can be magnified or diminished by a factor of 10 depending on the charity, so it makes sense to think hard about where you give it.”