Leaving “BigLaw” should not mean leaving pro bono


By Sarah Luppen

“BigLaw” gets a bad rap: And, on a lot of points, “BigLaw” deserves it—doc review is real; all-nighters happen regularly; partners yell at you for comma misplacement; etc. But one thing big firms get right, is pro bono. They have pro bono directors and pro bono committees. They handle pro bono adoptions en masse every summer. They dedicate paralegal and secretarial staff to pro bono matters. They encourage young associates to take on pro bono assignments to get substantive experience. Big firms are dedicated to doing pro bono work, and they provide the support to make that work possible.

Pro-Bono-Pitch-200px-whiteI spent almost five years at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett— ranked 7 in the Vault Law 100, Simpson has over 850 lawyers and offices around the world. I did more than my fair share of doc review there, but I also got incredible experience doing pro bono work: my first (and second, third, and fourth) depositions, my first federal summary judgment motion, my first mediation brief, and my first settlement negotiation all came out of pro bono matters that Simpson supported.

In January of this year, I left Simpson to join Harder Mirell & Abrams, a brand new entertainment litigation firm with a staff of ten—partners, associates, paralegals, and support staff included. I love my new job. We work really hard on interesting intellectual property and First Amendment cases, and we have fun and mostly get home for dinner. In order to provide high quality legal work and maintain a “work-life balance,” however, we have to allocate our resources efficiently. Taking on a pro bono litigation matter of the type that I worked on at Simpson would be difficult if not impossible.

The attrition rate at Vault Law Top 100 firms hovers around 20 percent. Former big-firm associates go in-house, start their own firms, go to smaller boutique firms, or get out of law altogether. The new places promise dinner at home, a more amiable work environment, and no doc review. But they don’t promise pro bono support.

Outside of “BigLaw,” there are no summer-associate programs. Everyone shares the same secretary. Cases are not staffed with a senior partner, junior partner, a senior associate, two mid-levels, and three juniors. It’s you and a partner. Thus, one of the unintended consequences of associates leaving big law firms is that these associates spend less time doing pro bono work.

Over the next month leading up to National Pro Bono Week October 21-26, I’m going to be blogging here at Go Public about the real story behind pro bono – and the steps I’m taking to get back in the game. Public Counsel is researching and creating non-traditional pro bono opportunities—ones that will not take months to resolve or a team of lawyers to litigate—because small-firm and in-house lawyers have a lot to offer. And leaving “BigLaw” should not mean leaving pro bono. Visit the Pro Bono Pitch page to find a list of opportunities and add your name to the roster.

Sarah E. Luppen represents both plaintiffs and defendants in entertainment and business litigation at Harder Mirell & Abrams. She is a member of Public Counsel’s Associate Leadership Board.