Pro Bono Thief

The last two years of my life have been stolen from me.

For almost 24 months, I’ve been handling a pro bono case that nobody else in our mid-sized firm wanted. I thought it would be a good way to stand out.  It was a 1983 case on behalf of an inmate locked away in a prison 100 miles from our office.

I made repeated trips to the prison (usually counting 18-wheelers I passed just to stay awake), took depositions, gathered evidence, met with the client (needless to say, rough around the edges and hardly a raconteur), and did every single bit of grunt work myself. And I did it all in my spare time, as I still met my billables during that time.

I handled everything.  The further I got into it, the more the case looked like it would actually see a courtroom.  And I started to get pretty excited.  After all, prepping the case for trial and seeing it through to the end was going to be a priceless skill-building lesson, right?  I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I was impressed with myself.

In fact, a few other people in the firm also got excited about the case, realizing that it wouldn’t be a run-of-the-mill prisoner rights case, and that there was the chance to actually make a little case law.  But when I got done building up all my grunt work skills, my boss realized that I had actually raised “several interesting legal questions” in the case.  (His words, not mine.) “You have an interesting argument,” he quipped.

Like a sap, I thanked my boss for the compliment and said I was looking forward to the trial.

But that’s when the bottom fell out, and I was robbed.

“Actually, I think I’m going to handle this matter,” he uttered.  I think, at first, even he was surprised he said it, but he quickly hardened up.

I complained. Then I tried to appeal to his sense of fairness. Then I begged to at least take second chair at trial.


My boss gave the second chair to a black, female fifth-year. And everything quickly became all about him attempting to raise his profile and boost his reputation—all while looking hard-charging and diverse.  It had nothing to do with seeking justice for the underprivileged.  Only seeking glory for himself. 

The initial day he told me, he tried to cushion the blow by saying that if he had any questions about my work, he’d let me know.

I’ve never heard from him since. 

After two years of hustle and young, naive anticipation, I’ve since been assigned to a doc review assignment on some complex drug liability case that will probably never see trial. And even if it does, I certainly won’t be anywhere near that courtroom because I now work out of an unheated conference room at the client’s records storage facility. 

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  • Prison Break

    Typical experience but better to get used to it now. my only question is why the gender/race of the second chair mattered? I’m not sure how it added to this story?

  • Anonymous

    you are naive if you think that the race and gender of the second chair didnt add to the story.  Im sure it mattered to the boss who selected her to be the second chair.

  • BL1Y

    “It had nothing to do with seeking justice for the underprivileged.  Only seeking glory for himself. “ It sounds like you and your boss had the same motivation at this point.  Who do you think the client has a better chance of success with, you or an experienced litigator?  You’re just upset that you don’t get to claim the credit.

  • Guano Dubango

    I will never do pro bono again.  I was told that I could get in with some very pretty women if I handled a matter for PETA.  Well let me tell you the women were very unattractive and they did not even give me one for the cause.  I say, never again will I work unless I know there are pretty eligible women.

  • Damn

    Sounds like your boss is a real ingrate, you should make every effort to screw him before you get out of there, and make that as soon as possible – the ways he screws you will only get worse from here.  Perhaps tell a few clients this story over beer to let them know what kind of prick they’ve got working for them, or better yet, to the extent there are any questionable billing or other practices at the firm, let them know that (of course, in a subtle and never-in-writing way that cannot be proved, traced back to you, or labeled as libel).  You might also want to drop by and see the pro bono client and let him know you wish you could continue representing him but that your boss pulled you off the case against your will.  You could even file a motion to withdraw as well since you won’t be working the matter anymore and don’t want to be responsible for your boss’s (and the AA associate’s) subsequent filings.  (That latter one, and frankly any of these suggestions, might get you fired though, so better have another job or plan lined up first.)

  • BL1Y

    @Damn: “Men must either be caressed or else annihilated; they will revenge themselves for small injuries, but cannot do so for great ones.” Your plan is completely unsound.  Getting vengeance against the boss will only create one more enemy in the world who may someday ruin this guy’s career.  Unless he can completely destroy his boss’s career and professional reputation, he should go the route of being polite.  He should ask to assist when he can, and act relieved that the boss has taken over.  If client wins at trial, he should congratulate the boss and tell others that without the boss’s leadership there’s no telling how the case would have ended.  The key here is to turn the relationship around and turn the boss into an ally.  There’s no point in picking a fight you can’t profit from.

  • Robert Smith

    The client obviously did better with the partner in charge. Were you ready to face an experienced DA?  But for once I agree that the parner was an ass.  He was foolish and graceless to exclude you.  Suck it up because everyone that matters will know who did it. (don’t you think they’ve been watching the sunk time and costs into that rathole of a case defending some convicted hoodlum who pays no taxes and is a drain on their taxes?).  Whining about it will simply reduce everyone’s admiration for what you did.  Enthuse to others “Wow I wish I could have done the trial after all the work, but it was better for the client this way.” Find partners that want you on their team because they value contributors.  Volunteer to work for them if you can and transition away from the ass.  And don’t feel so bad: it was the firm’s money and time you spent. And their malpractice risk on the line.  You got good work up experience at cost to the firm-with almost zero risk! Believe me, you did well. Now go back to work.

  • Craig

    Robert Smith nailed this one.  Nothing left to say.

  • www.pinkshoelawyer.blogspot.com

    I suppose you would have a better case if (a) you paid your own salary; (b) you paid your own malpractice insurance; and (c) you asked the client and the client wanted you.
    The judge will know you’re missing.  And that’s the important one… this is, I’m assuming, in Federal Court.  They pay attention to the lawyers who actually give two figs about a pro bono prisoner rights case.

  • Anon22

    I have a good friend who did some pro bono stuff and wasn’t to happy about it.

  • Damn

    @BL1Y: “The key here is to turn the relationship around and turn the boss into an ally. There’s no point in picking a fight you can’t profit from.” My point was that someone who is enough of a bastard to exclude him entirely at this stage is not someone who will EVER be trustworthy or otherwise anything other than a piece of #$^%.  He can choose to toss a grenade on the way out the door or not (not sure I agree about not picking unprofitable fights – sometimes standing up to a jerk is its own reward, though I know most gutless lawyers never have the stones to do so and bottle that frustration up inside), but either way, he is working for someone who is going to screw him next time just like they did this time and the sooner he faces that the sooner he be able to make betterinformed decisions about his future.

  • Alma Federer

    My firm is kind of bipolar on pro bono.  They “encourage” pro bono officially, but they still want you to bill at least 2700 hours and they don’t count the pro bono time against the 2700.  So even though I would do pro bono, I don’t have enough time to do that and my other work, b/c if I don’t bill 2700, I will have a problem with the managing partner in January.  So I don’t do what is encouraged.  Just another excuse for the firm to come down on me.

  • BL1Y

    @Damn: The associate didn’t really get screwed over that much.  It’s not his client.  It’s the firm’s client, and the firm’s resources that are being used for the client’s defense (I assume the young associate didn’t pick up his own lexis bill).  The partner is probably acting in the best interest of the client (even if he has other motivations), and if what’s best for the client means you’re being screwed over, you need to rethink your priorities.  It’s not like the partner went the extra mile to really stick it to this guy; any sort of firm-wide e-mail or press release discussing a win in this case will almost certainly mention the associate’s contributions.  The partner has seen that this associate can do good work, and remember that even partners aren’t secure in their jobs.  Now the partner knows that this associate is someone who can do good work for him, and if the associate is willing to let the partner shine, he’ll have found himself a solid ally.  I do agree that most lawyers don’t have the balls to stand up for themselves, but most who do have the balls don’t have the brains to remember that discretion is the better part of valor.  The legal world is smaller than many might think.  How many partners at other firms do you think this one partner knows? 50 is probably a reasonable estimate.  And then there’s the partners known by the other partners at the associate’s current firm.  Word can travel fast, and you can never underestimate how petty and vindictive someone will become.

  • Damn

    @BL1Y: “and if the associate is willing to let the partner shine, he’ll have found himself a solid ally.” Again, pure conjecture my friend, at best – based on the partner’s behavior so far, we have no reason to believe it and strong reason to doubt it.

  • prog

    There’s no one to stand up to.  He’s the boss.  You can’t fight the boss on something like this.  Suck it up.  Welcome to life.

  • Sarcasmus

    I’m shocked that you don’t even get to second chair this thing.  That’s ludicrous.  Sounds like an awesome law firm that you should try to become a partner in.  Pathetic.