One of the things that struck me most early on in law school was the notion that some paths were considered more elite and desirable than others. I simply didn’t understand why my classmates were obsessed with particular opportunities. That was, until I attended a diversity reception at a large law firm during my first year, where someone mentioned the starting salary for lawyers (at the time $125,000). Suddenly, I understood why law students seemed so desperate to secure jobs at large law firms after graduation.
As it turns out, those running elite, large law firms understand that some law students experience a conflict when deciding on what path to take after graduation: pursue the money and perceived prestige associated with the work done by large law firms or fulfill a desire to help people without easy access to legal services. It is important, at least in part, for there to be strong pro bono initiatives at elite large law firms because they enable talented attorneys to pursue both goals in tandem. Atinuke Adediran’s recent work, however, challenges the efficacy of that narrative.
In 2017, Professor Adediran conducted a qualitative study of the relationship between pro bono services provided by large law firms via nonprofit legal services organizations (NLSOs), and she draws upon her fascinating findings in two forthcoming papers: The Relational Costs of Free Legal Services and Solving the Pro Bono Mismatch. To obtain a better understanding of the relationship between NLSOs and large law firms, she interviewed thirty-eight executive directors or pro bono coordinators of NLSOs and thirty-six individuals at large law firms responsible for coordinating each firm’s pro bono activities. What Adediran found is that the pro bono services provided by elite large law firms often do not line up with the true needs of the poor identified by NLSOs—and this disjunction, she explains, creates a “pro bono mismatch.” Perhaps more importantly, she founds that the power dynamic between law firms and NLSOs is often imbalanced, with NLSOs sometimes spending significant resources on pro bono matters that are more important to the lawyers at law firms than the poor the services are supposed to help. In short, big firm lawyers providing pro bono services to the poor may not be doing as much good as they—and we—think in addressing the need for greater access to legal services for certain populations.
In Solving the Pro Bono Mismatch, Professor Adediran addresses the mismatch between the pro bono preferences of law firms and the needs of the poor. In particular, she explains how the individual interests of lawyers contribute to firms’ selection of pro bono matters, leading them to focus on certain types of pro bono work, like immigration, over others, like housing or family law. For example, one individual she interviewed explained that many litigation partners are “uncomfortable being involved in a family law case.” Additionally, another interviewee explained that lawyers tended to work on matters within their comfort zones, due to a fear that they might “screw up really badly” on matters too far outside their areas of expertise. In short, her work demonstrates that elite lawyers themselves are driving the demand of certain types of pro bono work as opposed to the preferences of those who are actually in need of legal services.
In The Relational Costs of Free Legal Services, Professor Adediran, again harnessing new and important insights from her qualitative study, explains some of the background for how the pro bono mismatch between large law firms and NLSOs has impacted the delivery of pro bono legal services in potentially important ways. As the government reduced its funding for civil legal services during the 1980s and 1990s, NLSOs had to find resources from other avenues. For many NLSOs, the support of elite large law firms—both in terms of actual monetary donations as well as the “free” labor provided by firm attorneys—became indispensable. One consequence is that NLSOs are required to keep the firms that provide vital resources to them happy, often leading NLSOs to accept relationships with firms that result in less-than-optimal pro bono services that fail to meet the most acute legal needs of the populations the NLSOs were meant to serve. Additionally, Professor Adediran demonstrates that it can be quite costly for attorneys at NLSOs to supervise the work of a law firm attorney engaged in a type of pro bono matter for the first time. Those investments would make sense if each law firm lawyer committed to take on several similar pro bono cases (so the lawyer’s initial training would pay dividends going forward), but instead, an attorney will often complete a type of matter only once, requiring the NLSO attorney to repeatedly engage in costly and time intensive supervision. And because the NLSO depends on the law firm for survival and wants to ensure that it remains happy, the NLSO is often not in a position to demand arrangements at firms that would be less costly and more efficient for the NLSO attorneys.
Professor Adediran puts forth some rather bold suggestions to resolve the issues she identifies. For example, she suggests that each state creates a centralized pro bono system, which would provide participants with better information about local pro bono legal needs and allow for the identification and prioritization of areas with the greatest needs when allocating pro bono matters to firms. Additionally, she suggests harnessing the power of intermediaries, like American Lawyer Media rankings, to apply pressure on law firms and incentivize them to engage in pro bono efforts more closely related to the needs of the poor, thereby helping to reallocate power between law firms and NLSOs.
Whether or not you agree with Professor Adediran’s conclusions, the insights from her study and subsequent papers are important contributions to conversations concerned with the ways in which pro bono legal services are provided by large law firms and other providers and, therefore, the ways in which the poor are able to access legal services. For those leading NLSOs, her work suggests it may be time to think through mechanisms that will shift the current balance of power between NLSOs and the elite, large law firms they partner with. For those charged with overseeing pro bono efforts at large law firms, her work suggests it is time to consider how pro bono activities could be restructured to make them less costly for NLSO partners and more aligned with individuals’ demand for legal services. And for those who study the legal profession, her work offers a trove of qualitative information that will serve as a springboard for future work in the area.
In short, Professor Adediran’s work is interesting, insightful, probative, valuable, and definitely worth the read. To say “I like it a lot” would be an understatement!