Ben Heineman Emphasizes Need For Pro Bono Efforts By Lawyers

Thursday, May 1, 2008 - 00:00

Benjamin W. Heineman, Jr., Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and former Senior Vice President and General Counsel, General Electric Company, delivered the following remarks on March 13 at the Tenth Anniversary Celebration of The Pro Bono Partnership at the offices of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP in New York City.

It is quite remarkable to see hundreds of Pro Bono Partnership supporters at this event tonight. And hard to believe that 10 years ago, we started with just an idea and not much more. I want to single out Bob Healing, GE's corporate counsel for many years, for seeing the need and having the vision. And I want to thank the fantastic staff at the Partnership for giving that vision life - because, while it is great to have hundreds here tonight to celebrate, what is really important, ultimately, is the hundreds of corporate lawyers who have participated in the program helping thousands in our community through the efforts of those who work at the Partnership.

In a moment, I want to make very brief remarks about why pro bono work is a pillar of professional development - why it adds value to the lives of those who do it.

But first I want underscore the fundamental principle that pro bono lawyering really is an obligation for all of us who believe we practice a noble profession. The profound words on the facade of the Supreme Court Building - "Equal Justice Under Law" - really do speak to us all. We cannot realize that ideal of equal justice unless those who do not have means are provided with the highest quality legal service. So all of us in this room - all of us in this profession - have a solemn duty to make sure that happens.

Now, why do I say pro bono work is a pillar of professional development?

Let me first address this question from the perspective of young lawyers who begin their careers as public interest or public service lawyers.Because the Latin phrase "pro bono publico" means for the public good, these lawyers are surely, in an important sense, pro bono lawyers. Given the structure of our profession, public interest or public service lawyers often have extraordinary responsibility early in their careers - often with supervision from very wise and savvy veterans. Their experience in interviewing, preparing, taking testimony, writing briefs, arguing motions, dealing directly with clients, addressing big public policy issues is often a wonderful foundation for professional development which dramatically exceeds the experience of law firm associates of comparable age.

Because of these extraordinary opportunities for early responsibility and accountability in pro bono work, law firms should make pro bono lawyering a larger and better organized aspect of young associates' lives - as much as 20-30 percent.As I discuss in a recent article, "The Lost Generation" - which appeared in The American Lawyer and Corporate Counsel - law firms today are not offering young associates systematic mentoring and professional development and, all too often, are just running up the hours by putting high priced young lawyers on drudge work. This is why so many are leaving the big firms of their own volition at the three or four year mark. Giving these associates terrific real experience through a thoughtfully conceived and executed pro bono program would be great for them, for the firms and for those in need.

Finally, pro bono work is of great importance to the professional development of lawyers inside corporations. I consider involvement in one's community to be an important part of professional development - and sometimes such involvement is difficult for corporate lawyers working on their gated campuses in the sylvan suburbs. Pro bono lawyering gets corporate lawyers "out of the office" in the best sense of that phrase. Moreover, working in the community, with a diverse clientele and looking at matters within a lawyer's specialty from a very different perspective, is important for corporate lawyers increasingly called upon to deal with problems all over the world. I don't think it is a stretch to say that inside lawyering requires tremendous sensitivity to diverse people, not just to other lawyers. Working at the community organization on environment or tax or employment or litigation issues - rather than meeting other lawyers in conference rooms at headquarters or mid-town - is invaluable.

Anyway, these are just a few thoughts on why pro bono lawyering is so important to the professional development of us all.

But I want to end where I began:it is also so important because it is the right thing to do.

And that it is why I consider myself so privileged to be here tonight to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Pro Bono Partnership.