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?

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4 Responses

  1. Seth R. says:

    The problem is that for a big firm, pro bono is often just another form of marketing with a sensitive face.

    So Skadden, Arps, Meagher and Flom (or any big firm) helped a poor indigent beat the death penalty? Very nice. And they got a lot of glowing press too.

    A solo practitioner is rarely going to get those kind of benefits.

    But then again, pro bono requirements typically seem to be written with big-city firms in mind. In fact the entire ABA Model Code of Professional Responsibility skews toward a big firm reality.

    My personal opinion is that most lawyers would be better served donating cash so legal services can hire more staff than providing free time to a case outside their specialty and area of competence. It’s simply more cost-effective.

    Having a dedicated estate planning attorney take on a criminal defense case is a misuse of everyone’s time.

  2. This, to me, smacks of the machinery in action in Chicago. Big Jim Thompson, Republican, former AG and Governor of Illinois, is a very influential partner at W & S. I assume its decision to represent Ryan pro bono was either a political favor for Ryan himself, or a favor for the party. It may or may not fit into the “public service” category that we usually think of, but it’s also probably going to pay for itself in legal fees that the publicity brings in or that party loyalty creates. In that sense, we might think of it less as “pro bono” and more as an investment.

  3. Seth R. says:

    In all fairness though, pro bono works as marketing for small firms and attorneys as well.

    One of the first pieces of career advice a recent law school grad gets (if she doesn’t have a job already) is to consider taking some pro bono cases to get noticed and build confidence in other lawyers and the legal community.

    GP Solo regularly runs pieces talking about how “taking the right kind of pro bono” can actually help with networking and generate more business for you.

    The fact is that attorneys who are “out in the community” are going to gain more business and influence.

    Smart pro bono isn’t so much nice as it is simply “good business.”

    And what about attorneys who regularly undercharge or write-off expenses for their clients? Does that get counted as pro bono?

    The ABA and state bar requirements for “mandatory pro bono” are largely artificial. The whole requirement ought to be abolished, and service made discretionary.

  4. ThugEsq says:

    OK – here is the real deal on why Winston & Strawn represented Ryan “free.”

    So they could get their star lawyer in on him – like the mob always does the lawyer they throw at you is always an inside guy – and be on both sides of the case for the setup.

    Why else would Blago be sending millions to W&S right now and all the lawyers that cooperated with the feds inc. Joesph Power are being treated like Kings. Trust me – lawyers that cooperate with the feds agaist the mob get run out of town unless it is a mob approved prosecution.

    Just an opinion – but it is probably correct. I should know i am a lawyer that has been inside and seen what goes on.