Attention wannabe charity lawyers:
For all of you Bitter Lawyers out there in the morass of layoffs, bonus freezes and rescinded offers who are thinking of making that proverbial lemonade by turning your job loss into an opportunity for being a bleeding-heart do-gooder, I have four words for you: Back the truck up. Pro bono law is not what you may think it is.
The pro bono world, with all those sappy, well-intentioned charities, coalitions and foundations is ugly, people. Ugly. Both on the non-legal and legal side, you will find megalomaniacs, media whores, glory seekers and, worst of all, politicians. They will employ you for peanuts and squander your JD on stuffing envelopes, only to then take credit for your brilliance (should you ever have the good fortune to display some).
Humanitarians are usually well-intentioned, but they think their non-profit organization is their personal vehicle for stardom. And they have no problem guilting you into spending non-billable hours drafting worthless contracts or litigating ridiculous claims. Take for example an agreement I recently pored over for hours. It was basically just a document to get some rich guy’s sizeable (and tax-deductible) donation into an already well-endowed university in exchange for his name in lights above the new gratuitous sports facility. You would not believe the tantrums thrown over stipulating the font size of this guy’s name and how often it will appear in publications. C’mon, really? This is what you call humanitarian?
Now consider the beneficiaries of your work. As a pro bono lawyer, you may end up spending time at clinics that provide legal services for the poor. Don’t get me wrong; this is a very worthwhile and necessary endeavor. Just be aware of what might walk into your office. Take for example this dear, sweet spinster I had come in for a public housing matter. She eventually divulged the true motive of her visit and asked me with a straight face if I could help her get a restraining order against the aliens that come in the night to sexually assault her. She was perfectly normal looking. She correctly knew the year, the current president and all other obvious indications of sanity were present, but for her “little UFO visits”. In desperation, I chose to deal with her the only easy way I knew how—I looked her straight in the eye and told her to cover her bed with a leopard-print bedspread, which will keep the aliens at bay. Of course, this made perfect sense to her. She joyfully thanked me and left a satisfied customer. And it wasn’t the only time I had given that advice.
I am all for aid to the needy, but just know that charities are often hopelessly ineffective and frighteningly wrought with lameness. And there is no guarantee you will actually do any good for anybody. So don’t be naïve. Because there’s nothing uglier than a bitter pro bono lawyer.