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The Life and Career of Esther Lardent, President and CEO of the Pro Bono Institute, Washington, DCbr-Adjunct Professor of Law at Georgetown University-Fulbright Fellow
by Nikki LaCrosse
The Institute's banner project is the Law Firm Pro Bono Project. Its sister project, the Law Firm Challenge, just celebrated its 10th anniversary. The Project's main goal is to encourage larger law firms to make pro bono a part of their business models and firm cultures. The Challenge requires, among other things, that firms donate 3-5% of their total billable hours annually to pro bono work.
"We know we have firms we've worked with that were wonderful firms doing pro bono, but not focusing on it," Lardent says, "And we've seen them triple, in some cases, the amount of pro bono work and taking advantage of skills and resources and partnering them with these little pro bono organizations. You bring together these experts who live and breathe their advocacy work and these firms, with skills and offices everywhere…the impact of that can be extraordinary."
The work is not limited to lobbying firms to participate in pro bono. Lardent and her staff spend a great deal of time understanding what makes corporations and law firms tick in order to better integrate pro bono into those establishments. "I love working with the corporate community," Lardent explains. "Seeing how they manage, evaluate effectiveness, and seeing how principles like corporate and social responsibility is [sic] not measured only by the bottom line."
Lardent is pleased that pro bono has become more prolific in the legal world and gives credit for that to multiple sources. "I hope our work helping firms to do a better job has contributed to it," Lardent comments. "There also has been much more pressure from the legal media and law schools about pro bono at law firms." She supports the growing trend among law schools to make pro bono work mandatory for law students. "That makes a lot of sense. Law schools mandate a lot of other things too, and from my perspective, it wouldn't make sense if part of what we're going to require isn't to introduce you to part of your ethical obligations as a lawyer."
Lardent also credits the participation and enthusiasm of legal heavyweights such as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, former Attorney General Janet Reno, prominent lawyers John Pickering and Chesterfield Smith, and former Georgetown Law Center Dean Judith Areen with lending visibility and importance to pro bono work. Of their "shared commitment to pro bono," and PBI, Lardent says, "We're very lucky."
Lardent didn't grow up wanting to be a lawyer. "I actually didn't know any lawyers growing up. It was never something I wanted to do," Lardent explains. But the turbulence of the Vietnam era made its mark on her. "I'm a classic child of the '60s," Lardent says. "That was a time of tremendous upheaval and tremendous promise." She attended Brown University, graduating with a degree in literature and a strong interest in theater. "I was a movie and theater critic, and I planned to teach, to go to grad school, and wait for someone to die or retire at the New York Times or the Village Voice," Lardent says.
However, after working with the Vista program on segregation and busing in Boston schools during the summer of 1967, Lardent became frustrated by the lack of action on behalf of those in need. "I decided that while I love literature and theater, and they are very important to me, it would be incredibly selfish to continue, and I needed to figure out how to make change. Law school and lawyers had the ability to do that."
Lardent enrolled at the University of Chicago Law School and earned her J.D., although she admits, "I did not love my law school experience. In fact, women in my class filed a suit against the law school because they allowed law firms who discriminated against women to use their facilities." Lardent spent a lot of time working in the school's legal clinic, and when she graduated, she went straight into public interest work, taking a job at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Civil Rights division.
From there, she moved to the Individual Rights department at the American Bar Association (ABA). "We dealt with a lot of policy issues. That's what really sparked my interest in volunteer activities. I got to hear people doing reports and doing programs. I was really struck by how much energy and effectiveness they had." Lardent went on to establish a pro bono project for the Boston Bar Association and to become the head consultant for the death penalty project at the ABA. A subsequent position with the Ford Foundation led her to create the Pro Bono Institute.
"For me, this is the perfect position," Lardent explains. "When I was doing legal services directly, I always felt incredibly frustrated. I couldn't help enough people, no matter how hard I worked. I didn't love litigating, and what I really like about what I do now is that it gives me the ability, although indirectly, to assist so many more people."
While Lardent is pleased with the increase in pro bono work done every year in the U.S., the Law Firm Pro Bono Project firms have provided 20 million hours of pro bono work in the last 10 years, she notes that there is a long way to go. "It is still the case that lots and lots of people don't have access to the help that they need," Lardent laments. "Pro bono is going to have to increase simply because we're not doing any better in public funding, and yet the needs get more and more complex."
Lardent is also quick to emphasize that more hours of pro bono is just part of the solution. "Transactional pro bono is going to increase. It's a very important area with tremendous potential to create systemic improvements," she notes. "Micro-lending is needed so that low-income people can start small businesses and get help with regulations. It is a big area with a lot of development."
She also feels that utilizing people from all areas of the legal profession is necessary. "There are interested lawyers in larger law firms, but a lot of the lawyers are not litigators and don't want to be litigators, but they do have skills," Lardent says. "I was just at a firm event yesterday, and it's a firm that instituted a pro bono project with real estate lawyers, creating houses for the homeless. They've created over a thousand units of housing. It is still important for someone to be representing those people when they get evicted, but the ability to create long-term solutions is key."
When it comes to the political ramifications of, and impact on, pro bono, Lardent makes it clear that PBI stays out of the fray. "We don't get involved in the politics because we're not a lobbying policy shop. The ABA has been working really hard on that for years," Lardent says. "What happens often is people who do pro bono begin to appreciate how intense the need is, so to some extent pro bono can be a force for making the argument itself." However, Lardent does have an opinion on whether or not pro bono should be politicized. "The Federalist Society has published a piece that essentially says pro bono really focuses on the left wing as opposed to being non-ideological. That's a matter of some discussion," Lardent states. "My take on that is the legal services for low-income people is [sic] neither left or right-it's non-ideological. The custody of a child or someone being abused or evicted is not a political act."
"But beyond that, to a certain extent, pro bono does focus more on progressive causes," Lardent goes on to explain. "But the reason for that is that is where the need is. If someone wants to challenge the implementation of the Clean Air Act, if a corporation wants to do that, they can pay for that. The people lacking the funds may be people who have a more ideological cause, but again the reason they need pro bono assistance is that they don't have the resources to get the legal help to vindicate themselves."
Lardent does acknowledge that there are times when pro bono interests and politics can knock heads. "Right now, there are a number of large law firms representing people who are being detained in Guantanamo Bay. My feeling is there is a group of people it is in the best interests of, in this country in general, that we're not holding people incommunicado, that it is, in fact, incredibly important that they get assistance. What firms should be doing is helping their lawyers find pro bono engagements whatever their interests and political values."
Although Lardent moved around a lot early in her career, she says she is content to stay where she is. "Intellectually, and in terms of colleagues, this job keeps growing and changing and is endlessly fascinating," she says. When she started the Law Firm Challenge, "People said, 'That's crazy. You can't ask firms to do that, and your definition of pro bono is much too narrow,' and now it's really become the industry standard." Lardent finds that running the Pro Bono Institute is a perfect fit. "For me, it's the best job I can imagine."
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