Time for Public Service?

by | March 10, 2009

Q: Although I am working at a private law firm, I would like to contribute some time to public service. Do you know of any ways I can do this?

A: Many people choose a career in law because they have a vision and a passion to effect change. They think they can do that through the legal system. Lawyers have a long and mostly commendable history of carrying the sword for unpopular causes against long odds. It is a history we hope to see extended.

Nonetheless, a great deal of pragmatism has crept into the practice in recent years. The competitive dynamics of the legal community may have left less room for the pursuit of a cause. Many law firms today have their eyes glued firmly to the bottom line. Add to this the fact that achieving partnership in many firms is largely a measure of the ability to generate new business and saving the world becomes a more complicated feat.

Competition in today's legal arena means business planning. It is a vast change from the days when law was considered the "gentleman's" profession. Market share, profit margin, and five year plans are the concerns of firms now bent on a national practice. Staffing up, adding branches, and marketing are decisions based on economic rationale. Practicing law today - especially in the country's biggest firms - is like building cars or drilling for oil: it's a business.

This is not to say that the trend won't change. But for now the trend is well-established. While many firms support pro bono programs, it is getting harder to pursue those goals while pursuing a partnership. Partnership, after all, may require that your extra time be spent developing prospective clients rather than in donating it to the cause.

While the cost of saving the world may be getting more complex and expensive, it is no less noble a goal.

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