The Model Rules of Professional Conduct set a high bar for us future attorneys: “A lawyer, as a member of the legal profession, is a representative of clients, an officer of the legal system and a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice.” States have toyed with what this means in terms of legal practice, sifting through the benefits and pitfalls of mandatory pro bono programs. While we could undoubtedly moan and complain about New York’s own 50-hour pro bono requirement, it is important to see the aim: to inculcate a sense of public responsibility to professionals.
Columbia’s Public Interest Law Foundation (PILF) is a non-profit organization, but more importantly it is a vehicle for public interest advocacy. While it does operate a community grants program, it endeavors to reach the immediate community in part by providing access to those alumni who have dedicated themselves to public service. Earlier this month, PILF awarded U.S. Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli, Jr. ’83 with the Public Interest Achievement Award at PILF’s Annual Dinner. Attending as a board member, I was unsure of what to expect of the occasion. The Dinner, organized by Dee Kuchukulla ’15 and Mary Dohrmann ’15, was held at Columbia’s carved-out corner within the Princeton Club and complete with a cocktail hour to mingle with a plethora of faculty members, alumni, and the guest of honor himself. The turnout, particularly by the faculty, was nothing short of jaw dropping; then again, it isn’t every day that a legal giant agrees—enthusiastically, even—to attend a predominantly student-run event.
The first thing I would note were the near-tears of the Solicitor General after a touching introduction by Professor Peter Strauss. To some degree I was tickled by this display of emotion as a reminder that government officials are people too, but on a more serious level I was stunned by the strength of this long-standing relationship developed through Columbia. Professor Strauss read from a letter of recommendation he wrote to Justice Brennan on Verrilli’s behalf thirty years ago. It stressed to me the lengths this community is willing to go to actualize the goals of its members, whatever those goals might be. The second point is that Verrilli impressed me; certainly I respect his work, but what I really found remarkable was the vehemence with which he believes in service in the public interest. Some of us who weighed the pros and cons of a Columbia Law degree surely came across the school’s supposed reputation for producing grist for the firm mill. I count myself among the “fallen,” having accepted a summer firm position despite original aspirations of working within the mental health field and newer ambitions of entering academia. I worry at times that I have traded some integral part of myself simply for an easier, more secure course.
I asked Verrilli informally about his thoughts on Columbia’s aforementioned reputation. He actually looked surprised and even a bit confused. He then launched into a recitation of all his former classmates who do work in the public interest as well as the variety of ways in which they do it. He himself worked at Jenner & Block and managed to maintain a healthy pro bono practice while there. I found this heartening, and as he outlined the successes of other alumni, I realized that a stark either-or approach is an affront to a large portion of the legal community. “There’s always time to work for the public interest,” Verrilli said. “Look at your entire year and devote a fraction of it—say 10 percent—to work for people that society has neglected.” More than time, there are many ways to do public interest work. No, we will not all be the Solicitor General of the United States, we may not spend 100% of our time giving free legal advice (although some of us will), but we can maintain a hold on the dedication to service. We can start to strengthen that grip early. For example, a large portion of donations from PILF’s Annual Auction* goes to Guaranteed Summer Funding, which many students use to fund their 1L summer. The benefiting students serve everywhere from government agencies, non-profit organizations, and now judicial chambers. We get that sense of public responsibility into our blood, and organizations like PILF as well as our home-grown alumni and faculty are the vehicles by which we enable ourselves to keep in touch with that responsibility. There’s always time—and ways—to work for the public interest. We just have to be cognizant of that fact.
*The 2014 PILF Auction will be held on April 10