Pro bono work — connecting the dots

In an add-on to my post about the Keep America Safe video, John provided an insightful look at pro bono work as practiced in small town America (by his father and others) and as practiced at large law firms in New York and Washington, D.C. today. One of John’s conclusion was that it’s fair to ask about the ideology that lawyers who provided free legal services to terrorists bring to national security issues.
I agree, and said so in my post. The video errs not by asking about the ideology of these lawyers, but by misstating it. The operative ideology is not that of al Qaeda, but rather reckless civil libertarianism and perhaps (as John suggests) hatred of the Bush administration.
As to pro bono work at large firms in New York and Washington, John wonders whether these firms, or these lawyers, normally make a practice of volunteering to defend criminal defendants for free. In my limited experience, such firms don’t focus on this work. However, they do like to get involved in death penalty cases, especially at the appellate level. This is true for two reasons. First, the stakes are high; second, these cases have a clear ideological component for liberals.
It stands to reason that high-power lawyers, when they devote their services for free, favor cases with a clear ideological component. For this reason, John and others are absolutely right to draw conclusions about the ideology of lawyers based on the big pro bono cases they elect to work on. Again, the key is to draw reasonable conclusions, not unfair ones.
Most pro bono work, in my experience, is performed by young lawyers, in part as vehicles for developing their skills. Partners typically participate by providing supervision.
Small-time criminal cases would serve this purpose. However, many firms seem to favor more tidy cases such as certain immigration matters, landlord-tenant cases, and appeals from adverse findings against individuals seeking social security benefits.
Social security cases don’t have a strong ideological component, but they fit in well with the outlook of both liberals and conservatives. Taking on arrogant, opaque bureaucrats in order to help ordinary citizens retains bipartisan support.
One of my friends recently raised an interesting question, though. Do the liberal lawyers who take on, and rail against, social security bureaucrats draw any connection between this experience and a health care system in which the same breed of bureaucrats will be making decisions about the medical treatment available to us?
It seems not.

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