What Is Pro Bono Work? The George Ryan Question
This is is no longer news – indeed, it’s old – but I’ve just learned that former Illinois governor George Ryan – he of death penalty moratorium and, more recently, racketeering and corruption conviction fame – was represented at trial pro bono by Winston and Strawn. The firm may have committed as much as $20 million (in billable, not real, dollars) to the case. The firm’s generosity can be explained, in no small part, by the fact that the firm’s chairman is former governor James Thompson, under whom Ryan served as lieutenant governor.
This is surely an unusual form of pro-bono work. While we often think pro-bono projects are targeted at poor people or underrepresented groups, that is far from universally true. Some firms represent cities, for example – saving the general counsel’s time on particular cases. Some commit associates to work for DA’s offices. And some firms serve clients like the ACLU and other impact litigation groups, arguing matters – from gay rights to reproductive freedom to private property protection – which benefit people across the economic spectrum.
My sense is that smaller firms, and individual lawyers, target their pro-bono efforts at individual clients who could not otherwise afford legal services. But bigger firms use their pro-bono work to serve a more diverse agenda. The biggie, it’s always seemed to me, is associate happiness. Many associates want to get hands-on experience and if they can do social good – broadly defined – so much the better. Law firms want junior lawyers to learn practice skills and these cases (particularly ones that will go to a hearing, or include depositions) provide that training at no risk to serious (i.e., paying) clients. Finally, law firms get a PR bump from being seen as community oriented.
I’m not sure how the the Ryan case fits into this lattice. Ryan, a pharmacist from Kankakee (who apparently received cash Christmas gifts from his employees, in an unusual turnaround of holiday tradition) could never have afforded the services of former U.S. Attorney Dan Webb, and his team, but he hardly qualifies as poor, or even poorish. And Ryan seems to have been represented as seriously as any other paying client, which means that associates got as much – but no more – responsibility than they would on any other matter. And as for the public relations angle, the firm has been pilloried for providing the former Governor this free, red-carpet treatment.
Was this was just one politician helping out another? Winston and Strawn is entitled to do that (although there may be some tax consequences for Mr. Ryan.) I’m just not sure we should call this service pro bono publico. Pro bono privatus, perhaps?