Before I became a lawyer, I studied Gothic literature, American and English. Friends suggested (darkly, of course) that reading Ambrose Bierce and Bram Stoker was not a detour but rather a direct path to law school, that an interest in twisted and creepy human behavior leads naturally to becoming a lawyer.
As we celebrate the first-ever National Pro Bono Law Week, and with Halloween looming, I’ve revisited this professional crossroad, but now from the hopefully wizened perspective of a “pro bono lawyer.”
The United States has many reasons to celebrate its laws and lawyers, and our tradition of pro bono—in its purest form, the act of giving free legal counsel to the poor and those who serve the poor—is one of them. Individual charitable legal work may be as old as the practice of law, but the institutionalization of lawyers and law firms working for free for those unable to afford it has blossomed only in the last 25 years. Pro bono publico has elevated the profession of the law. But have we elevated it enough?
A Gothic motif, at least as I grappled with it, is the professionalization of 19th-century society and the spiritual compromise that accompanied industrialization. As the outer world visibly changed, as cities grew crowded, louder, faster and darker, and as increasingly powerful professions carved out their spheres, so too did our inner worlds change. The mechanized and routinized force we brought to bear on the natural world reshaped our inner lives too, including how we perceived the rights and obligations flowing to and from family, friends, neighbors, and society. Notions of fairness and acceptable casualties hung in the balance.
Lawyers and new laws greased the wheels of industrial progress. Today, the law’s impact on how we live and die is omnipresent. Health care reform, climate control accords and market regulation are the dominant examples, but there are others, less dramatic but no less deeply impactful: housing, bankruptcy, benefits, immigration, disability. The imbalance between “the haves and the have-nots,” a phrase which strikes me as peculiarly Gothic, is with us now more than ever. Like the beating of a tell-tale heart, maybe it always will be.
Pro bono lawyers, at least part of the time, align with the “have-nots,” the uneducated, the marginalized, the unprotected. The law, that great neutral arbiter that aspires to leveling the field, falls hard on the unrepresented—and not just hard, but swift, cold and often mysteriously. To the uninitiated, courthouses can be fearsome places, and even simple transactions like leases and partnerships can be treacherous. And, of course, the stakes are always high, maybe not souls and salvation, but keeping or losing one’s home, livelihood or kin.
The difference between being self-represented and having a pro bono lawyer is night and day, like doing your own by-pass or having a surgeon. I had a professor that spoke of Gothic literature as addressing the “wobble in the world,” meaning the fear and doubt that come calling when imbalance sets in and life begins to spiral out of control. For the poor, that threat is always at the door.
And that is where my crossroad recurs. Pro bono service can restore balance not just for the client, but for the lawyer. We are volunteers. We have paying practices that compensate us well. We have the comfort and protection of knowing the law. We don’t fear the knock on the door. And so, the law being neutral and our tether, we follow where it leads, whether to a board room or a domestic violence hearing. We draft papers to merge banks and we advise a non-profit after-school art clinic. Pro bono service takes some of the detached professionalism out of the practice of law. In reaching out, we reduce the distance between us and the impact of what we do. We straddle the line.
It may be that pro bono service is little more than a mask we put on for our own sakes, to restore our own sense of balance as we each grapple at the crossroad; or it may be that it elevates the profession by humanizing it. When you work with the poor, you confront real-world problems—debt, violence, sickness—and offer small, sometimes temporary, solutions. You come in on legal terms but you end up working through life terms, closer to your clients and their world, which is, but is not, yours.
Our first National Pro Bono Week comes at an interesting time. We may or may not be heading toward an era of greater balance between Wall Street and Main Street, between our appetites and our planet, but so long as we remain a “county of laws,” there will be a place in it for the pro bono lawyer.
Kevin J. Curnin is a partner and the director of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan’s Public Service Project.