What’s Your Pro Bono Origin Story?

7 Min Read By: Hon. Elizabeth S. Stong

Heroes and heroines have origin stories. Goddesses and gods have origin stories. These stories give context, offer explanations, answer some questions, and may raise others.

Lawyers who do pro bono work have origin stories, too—and not only because these lawyers are the unsung heroines and heroes of the legal profession. Their motivation and opportunity came from somewhere. Maybe it was planned, maybe it was pure serendipity—maybe it was a bit of both.

My own pro bono origin story dates back to my first assignment as a brand-new litigation associate at a leading New York law firm, fresh from a one-year clerkship with US District Judge A. David Mazzone. As a very junior litigator with a year of district court law clerk experience under my belt, I was assigned to the trial team in a big, “impact litigation” pro bono case in which we represented New York City in a civil action against the US Commerce Department and the Census Bureau. Our claim was that the decennial census undercounted New Yorkers. It just wasn’t designed to get that count right. But with proven methods of statistical adjustment, the census counts could be—demonstrably—made more accurate, or closer to the true figures. And after several years of litigation, the case was just weeks away from trial.

So, I dove in. There was a lot to do, and a lot to learn. It was clear from my first day on the case that every professional on the team, from the partner—a brilliant, intense, even legendary litigator—to the trio of associates, whom I admire to this day, to the two utterly dedicated paralegals, was passionate about the case, and the cause. Undercounting New Yorkers hurt the city. It reduced the amounts of federal funds and benefit programs that were allocated to New York and New Yorkers, sometimes significantly.

Many litigation associates at large firms never see a trial. Within two months of starting practice, I was back in court—as part of the team on a pro bono trial. I learned about the importance of preparation, and I saw the results of excellent preparation every day. I also saw how a sense of humor can come in handy when the judge was having an off day. And I saw firsthand how the kind of teamwork that is part of every client representation is enhanced when the firm is representing a client not to be paid, but because it is the right thing to do.

I learned a lot about the different roles that lawyers can have in the legal profession as well. Our co-counsel and our adversaries alike were brilliant and dedicated public servants. We shared our side of the counsel table with senior lawyers representing New York City from the Corporation Counsel’s office, or “Corp Counsel.” The defendants in the case, including the Commerce Department and the Census Bureau, were represented by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. In a way, they were just as committed to the integrity of the census process as we were. Notably, the lead counsel on the government’s team later became a federal judge.

I learned something else from this pro bono experience, and this was quite unexpected. Sometimes even when you lose, you win. Our claim was that the 1980 decennial census figures should be adjusted. And we lost. But remember, the lawyers for Census Bureau—and the Bureau’s own senior staff and experts—shared the goal that the decennial census should be as good as it could be. The undercount hurts exactly the same people who may well be most likely to be missed—or undercounted. These are people without regular addresses, people who may not speak English as a first language (or at all), undocumented people and other people who may be fearful of authority, and people in the shadows and at the margins of urban life. Perhaps the lawyers representing the Census Bureau were as troubled by this as we were.

I’d like to think that this team of pro bono lawyers and experts made a pretty compelling case that statistical tools could be used prospectively to improve the accuracy of the census counts, and to bring the undercounted out of the shadows. And for the 1990 decennial census, the Census Bureau made the determination that these kinds of lessons and tools would be part of the process from the outset. Sometimes even when you lose, you win. Sometimes, eventually, everybody wins.

From that point on, a pro bono matter was pretty much always part of my practice. As an associate, these matters included representing an African American woman in her Title VII discrimination claim against her former employer, and representing an inmate on his Second Circuit appeal of the dismissal of his claim that the state prison disciplinary system was racially biased.

As a partner, my role shifted to encouraging and promoting and supervising countless pro bono matters, from political asylum cases to housing court matters to uncontested divorces. The lessons from my pro bono origin story stayed with me and guided me in those matters. Maybe they helped others find their own pro bono origin story as well.

And now, as a judge in a court with many unrepresented parties, I’m still thinking about pro bono—and I still love pro bono origin stories, especially when they are unlikely. One of my pro bono heroes is a bankruptcy and litigation partner at a national firm—and over the years, alongside his litigation and restructuring practice and managing his firm, he has represented death row inmates in challenging their capital sentences. It’s one thing to help your client. It’s another to save his life.

Another of my pro bono heroes is actually a firm that is known for its cutting-edge work representing the tech industry. Big clients, big issues, industry-leading work. And this firm gives back by fostering opportunities for its lawyers to advise small startups—enterprises that would never, not ever, find their way into a leading law firm’s lobby, never mind the firm’s conference rooms. As they explain it, their attorneys are as excited about this work as they are about the largest deal or financing.

Yet another of my pro bono heroes is a program—and here, I’ll name names. The program is ABA Free Legal Answers, and it partners with state bars to connect lawyers around the country who have the capacity to respond to the occasional question about the law and legal rights with people who just need a little help. Recently, ABA FLA volunteers answered their two hundred thousandth question—that’s two hundred thousand people who got information they needed, for free, from a lawyer. Just as important, that’s two hundred thousand times that a lawyer got to make a difference, and perhaps, begin to write their own pro bono origin story.

So, what’s your pro bono origin story? Is it like mine, the revelation of being part of a team on major pro bono impact litigation? Or are you that rare and extraordinary attorney who takes on the capital appeal alongside their commercial practice? Is your narrative like that of the associate who bills time to a major tech deal in the morning and sits down with a fledgling entrepreneur in the afternoon? Are you, or could you be, the lawyer who stepped up and offered a Free Legal Answer to some of those two hundred thousand people with a question? Once you do pro bono, in whatever way works for you, I predict that you’ll be back. I don’t think many people do pro bono just once. They are hopeless—actually, hopeful—recidivists. And then you can write your own pro bono origin story. You’ll be glad you did.

Hon. Elizabeth S. Stong is a U.S. Bankruptcy Judge for the Eastern District of New York, sitting in Brooklyn.

By: Hon. Elizabeth S. Stong


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