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July 31, 2008 2:15 PM

PRO BONO 2008: Esther Lardent's Crusade

Posted by Wesley Yang

Eflportrait_2Esther Lardent's colleagues credit her with initiating a sea change in the way law firms think about, organize, and support pro bono work. She founded the Pro Bono Institute in 1996 with this change in mind, and then accomplished what she set out to do. But her early career was a study in frustration.

Lardent's first four years were spent in a succession of displaced person camps throughout Europe, where her parents--who had come from a small town in Poland--searched for the (tragically few) family members who had survived the Holocaust. The family moved to America where her parents were unable to complete their education, and worked sporadically at minimum wage work. "I consider myself a beneficiary of the American dream," Lardent says. "Given my Holocaust background (albeit one generation removed from the horror) it should come as no surprise that I became a public interest lawyer, working in the areas of civil rights, death penalty, and poverty law."

She graduated from the University of Chicago Law School in 1971 and began working in civil rights and poverty law for the Office of Civil Rights under President Richard Nixon. "The government had this tremendous power to make a difference," she says in a phone conversation. "But politics and ideology intervened, and there was less and less will to use this powerful instrument we had."

So, she left Washington, D.C., and went to Boston to work for the Cambridgeport Problem center (now the Community Legal Services and Counseling Center), a small organization that represented the poor in housing disputes, disability matters, and domestic abuse situations. As Lardent describes it, she felt a bit like the boy with his thumb in the dyke. "It quickly became clear [to me] that no matter how much I did, the line of those in need was much longer."

The Boston Bar in the late 1970's organized a Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, intent on recruiting lawyers in private practice to volunteer to pursue major class action litigation. Lardent took over as the executive director of its Volunteers Lawyers Project. It was the beginning of a new trend. Lawyers in private practice have always done pro bono work, of course, but it was, as Lardent says, "ad hoc, informal, and fairly minimal," even in a culture like Boston's, with a long tradition of it. The Legal Services Corporation began funding projects around the country as a way of moving the ad hoc system to something more organized and systematic, bringing private lawyers and corporate law firms into closer partnership with public interest law. Lardent's organization was tapped by the corporation to lead these efforts in Boston.

Embedding Pro Bono into Mainstream Practices

Back then, a bright line ran between those who pursued public interest law careers and those who went into corporate law. The former were hard-core idealists, prepared to make sacrifices for their calling. The latter had other priorities. They existed in separate cultures, seldom crossed paths, and didn’t know much about each other. What quickly became clear, Lardent says, was that the line didn’t have to be so bright; that lawyers of all persuasions wanted to do good. It was simply a matter of making the opportunities available to them. "I've found that you can never judge a lawyer's passion for a cause by where they work. Because you can always find people who defy expectations."

Lardent worked as a legal consultant to the American Bar Association and the Ford Foundation on death penalty, public service, and pro bono issues from 1985 to 1996, and then conceived of continuing her work in pro bono. In 1996, she founded the Pro Bono Institute at Georgetown University's Law Center. The idea was to further embed pro bono into the mainstream of private law practice, to devote herself with the single mission of driving change in this area. The approach recommended to and adopted by the firms: track the number of pro bono hours worked by lawyers at the firms, and recognize those that did the most, sharing and promulgating best practice. The Institute also would offer technical assistance to firms looking to do better.

When the institute first began tracking pro bono work in 1996, the figure was 1.4 million hours. In 2007, it was 4.3 million. "That's partly because firms have grown, and overall hours have grown. But pro bono hours have certainly grown faster than overall hours," Lardent notes.

Lardent attributes much of this rise to the commitment of major law firms to endorse pro bono as part of its core mission, to make it easier for lawyers to find work they are passionate about, and to manage it as a part of their workload. Law firms leaders realize the commitment won't hurt their bottom line, and accept the work as part of what they do.

"We're just lucky, today, to have leaders at major law firms and legal departments that are what I call "PBJs"--pro bono junkies--peers who lead firms that are very financially successful, and have a great deal of status, and can demonstrate it doesn't diminish the bottom line to do pro bono." She adds, "I also think it is a part of the post-9/11 world, and a real sense that the rule of law and justice and fairness are critically important."

Lardent's colleagues award her a large share in bringing about this change. "It's just a light-year's difference," says Christopher Herrling, pro bono counsel at Wilmer Cutler, about the culture of pro bono at corporate law firms between the formation of the Pro Bono institute and the present. "She really understands law firm culture and economics, and that law firms all have their own personalities. And with that understanding, she's been able, in an amazingly effective way, to mobilize firms to do ever-increasing amounts and varieties of pro bono work."

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