Oscar Wilde said he loved “talking about nothing. It is the only thing I know anything about.”
This week I shook my head reading that the Hon. Jonathan Lippman, former chief judge of New York’s highest court and who spent 43 years as a state court employee but never a year in private practice as a lawyer had taken a job with worldwide law firm behemoth Latham & Watkins LLP — in their New York office, of course. Judge Lippman is best remembered for his 2012 mandate that lawyers work 50 hours for free before being licensed to practice in New York.
New York became the first to compel pro bono work from lawyers. And it still fries my Arizona bacon. Last time I checked physicians, dentists, architects, pharmacists, engineers, accountants and other professionals have yet to acquire the special snowflake status of lawyers requiring them to provide free services as a precondition to practice their chosen professions. When altruism is coerced — not only is it no longer selfless — it is a tax.
Naturally, for proponents it’s nothing of the sort. It’s not compulsory charity but professional responsibility. Moreover, court cases dating back decades seem to back them up. Those decisions have held that lawyers as officers of the court aren’t protected by the 5th Amendment’s Takings Clause and are instead duty-bound to render service when ordered by court appointment.
In the Empire State, then, as the former chief judge proclaimed at the time from his seat on high, “If you want the privilege and honor of practicing law in New York, you’re going to have to demonstrate that you’re committed to our values.”
One more burden on the uninitiated.
There are no limits apparently to the belief that ‘To whom much was given, much will be required’ even when the much that’s been given includes staggering law school debt. And never mind that law school graduates in New York and elsewhere at a time of dismal job prospects for lawyers still can’t find good paying jobs as lawyers much less pay down hellacious debts.
Mississippi looked at it several years ago as reported by the Wall Street Journal‘s Law Blog at “Forced Pro Bono: But is it Legal?” And take particular note of the trenchant opinions of commentator “Paco”: “Law professors and judges who have guaranteed salaries, employer sponsored health insurance, and government retirement benefits are the perennial promoters of mandatory pro bono. Insulated from the economic vagaries of private practice, they nevertheless feel entitled to make pronouncements regarding the “moral” and related financial obligations the rest of us should bear. From my perspective as a private practitioner, the only moral imperative regarding this issue is for legal academicians and jurists to shut up.”
As for New York’s requirement, no one has deconstructed and decried it better than law school professor Paul Campos who entitled his contemporaneous acerbic takedown, “Clueless baby boomer judge orders poor lawyers to subsidize rich ones.” Or in other words, there’s nothing like vicarious noblesse oblige. Campos listed four objections, foremost being that in the hierarchy of indigent needs, legal services do not make the list of necessities.
Of Judge Lippman, Campos opined, “He has spent his entire professional career as a functionary within New York’s court system. I’m betting a Megamillions ticket that he doesn’t have the faintest idea how preposterous it is, under current circumstances, to expect aspiring lawyers to work for free as a precondition for bar admittance in New York of all places.”
“Walk a mile in my moccasins to learn where they pinch” is an old proverb. But even its variant, “Until you walk a mile in another man’s moccasins — you can’t imagine the smell,” is disregarded. Whether pinching or malodorous or pristine, legal elites would rather go moccasin-less preferring instead to impose destinations on others without having traipsed there themselves.
Prospecting for clients? Paying business expenses like rent, payroll, utilities, marketing, legal research and insurance? Worrying about paying back six-figure law school tuition debts? Such concerns will never trouble the moccasin discalced. Paraphrasing Oscar Wilde, those who talk about nothing they know anything about — always know everything.
Credits: Oscar Wilde, by Napoleon Sarony at Wikimedia commons, public domain;God the Father, by Guercino, Wikimedia Commons, public domain; Judiciary Scene : Judge Listening To Witness. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-0ca4-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99; A school class with a sleeping schoolmaster, oil on panel painting by Jan Steen, 1672, at Wikimedia Commons, public domain; broken and untied moccasins, by Tracy Ko at Flickr Creative Commons Attribution.