Promoting pro bono in law schools

Pro Bono

Meg Benson

Meg Benson has worked for Chicago Volunteer Legal Services, the oldest pro bono organization in the country, for more than 30 years. As executive director, she coordinates the agency's bench, bar and law firm relations and directs its program management and funding. A family law litigator, she still handles minor guardianship and custody cases.

October 2016

One night, just before bed, I read a law review article. Writing for the Indiana Journal of Law and Social Equality earlier this year, DePaul University College of Law Professor Julie D. Lawton critiqued the current emphasis on promoting pro bono in law schools.

Later that night, I had the strangest dream.

There I was, my middle-aged self, having an iced tea at my neighborhood Starbucks. Sitting across the table from me was my law student self, also drinking an iced tea. (Weird, huh?)

Younger Meg claimed to have read that same article for an ethics class and was telling me about the ensuing class discussion.

“Professor Lawton’s point is that when law schools encourage and help law students do pro bono, they are really imposing their own social justice morality. She says professors need to fess up and give students a chance to embrace their own morality, even if it is the morality of big business,” Young Meg explained.

My current self — looking disgusted — said, “The dog-eat-dog, screw-the-little-people morality? How can that be good for anyone?”

Young Meg replied, “Professor Lawton says that although the need for lawyers to help low-income people is undeniable, law professors have to realize some students may have a different, non-social justice morality.

“She says that professors impose their pro-social justice views on students without disclosing their bias. She points out that most in-house, live-client experiential learning opportunities require law students to provide pro bono legal services for low- to moderate-income clients. She also notes that schools fund pre- and post-graduate students to work in public interest fields but not in business disciplines.”

Gulping tea, my mature self snorted.

“Wait, there’s more,” young Meg said with a sly grin. “The professor claims that by mandating pro bono before someone can apply for a law license — like they do in New York — and by limiting students’ experiential learning opportunities to low- to moderate-income clients and funding post-graduate fellowships in legal aid, law schools are subversively indoctrinating students with their social justice morality.”

Current me laughed derisively.

“Pro bono allows poor people to access the justice system,” I said. “Is equal access to justice subversive?

“Of course it’s not subversive. Bar leaders and law schools have worked for years to convince lawyers and students that pro bono benefits attorneys and society. And now this law professor says they are simply pushing their own liberal agenda.”

Young Meg opened her mouth to talk but I speeded on. “Listen to this: ‘Law schools, through their financial support of public interest students and programs, clinical programs and mandatory pro bono requirements, attempt to inculcate law students with a responsibility of social justice that reflects the morality of the faculty and administration.’

“Then Professor Lawton argues that law schools have a duty to admit their social justice bias. They have to tell the students that they are imposing a ‘chosen morality’ and discuss whether it is the same morality that the students have. Schools should also consider offering financial support and experiential learning opportunities to students who hold non-social justice moralities.

“Does she want schools to open law school clinics for hedge funds and corporate securities traders? Will they start offering fellowships to attorneys who can’t afford to take entry-level jobs for a mere $160,000 a year?”

Young Meg laughed and said, “Before you get even more worked up, remember Professor Lawton goes after her own kind too, by pointing out the hypocrisy of law schools imposing social justice morality on students but not on its own educators and administrators.

“She says, and I quote, ‘If legal educators genuinely believe that mandatory pro bono is a necessary part of our collective responsibility, why are educators not arguing for a similar requirement for law school faculty? If students are required to perform, and are required to subsidize other students working in pro bono and public interest, why is there not a mandatory requirement of faculty as well as a condition of obtaining perks, such as summer stipends or merit raises?’”

I woke up as my two versions were laughing uproariously. I should never read law review articles before bed.