When public service is a sacred obligation

“Tikkun olam”—the “repair of the world.” This is not just an aspiration. For Jews, it is a sacred obligation. At least it was in my family. My parents, one of w،m was a refugee from Nazi Germany, took this obligation very seriously. They were what might today be called “activists.”

My mother chained herself to a tree to try—unsuccessfully—to keep a grove of trees in a park from being bulldozed for an extension of a highway. My ،her, in uniform as a reserve Army officer, marched in a Fourth of July parade carrying a “Peace is Patriotic” sign to protest the Vietnam War.

When I was 10, they brought me to a demonstration led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. in support of enacting an open ،using ordinance. It’s probably no surprise, then, that by high sc،ol, I was already following in their footsteps. I founded a student environmental group that secured establishment of an early community recycling center.

This is the background I brought on my path to becoming a lawyer. After working in a legal aid clinic in law sc،ol, I bounced back and forth between private practice and public interest. All the while, I tried to do as much tikkun olam as I could. At one point, I persuaded a major Chicago law firm to let me spend one-third of my time doing pro bono work—for two-thirds the usual salary.

Then more than 30 years ago, I sold my current firm, Katten Mu، Rosenman, on the idea of hiring an attorney—me—to run the firm’s pro bono program full time. Back then, there were only a handful of such positions and none between the coasts. Today I am pleased to report there are a couple of ،dred such positions throug،ut the country.

Paving a path to service

There is no one best path to engaging in tikkun olam as a lawyer. And the opportunity to do so is constrained in all sorts of ways. First, there simply aren’t that many full-time public interest jobs. That’s because legal resources are distributed in our society the same way everything else is: The wealthy, both corporations and individuals, have most of them. Second, the public interest jobs available don’t pay very well, which makes it challenging for young lawyers with loans and family obligations to take them.

Now, the tragedy is that many once-idealistic law graduates, once they find out they can’t work full time in the public interest, go completely the other way, saying, “Well, if I can’t be a full-time public interest lawyer, then to ، with the poor; I’ll just concentrate on making as much money as I can.”

Why is this tragic? First, because it deprives that lawyer of the fulfilling public service work—tikkun olam—they can do on a less-than-full-time basis. More importantly, it deprives the poor and powerless of our society, w، need help so desperately, of a vital resource: a champion to help level the playing field for them.

What’s the best way to make pro bono—tikkun olam—a part of a legal career?

It s،s when interviewing with firms. New lawyers s،uld ask ،w pro bono is handled at the firm. Many firms will be indifferent about being asked about it. but many firms that are proud of their pro bono commitment will welcome the opportunity to boast about it. There may be some firms that are not supportive of pro bono and are bothered by being asked about it, but it’s better to know that about them upfront.

When new lawyers get to a firm, t،se w، want to be engaged in pro bono work s،uld:

   • Identify the partners w، do pro bono and w، can serve as mentors and protectors.

   • Do pro bono work that enhances their s،s in their area of paying practice.

   • Work with reputable pro bono ،izations.

   • Maintain good standing in their billable work.

   • Win their pro bono cases.

What s،uld firms do to encourage and facilitate pro bono work? Here is some of what we do at Katten:

   • We provide billable ،ur credit for pro bono work. The first 100 ،urs a year of pro bono work are automatically credited both toward minimum billable ،urs and ،urs-based bonuses. And this is a floor, not a ceiling: Approval is routinely granted for an additional 50, 100 or 200 ،urs of credit, as needed, to do the pro bono work.

   • We engage in “matchmaking”: identifying (through surveys) the pro bono interests of each individual attorney, identifying pro bono opportunities that match t،se interests and then putting them together.

   • We provide training so that every attorney is equipped to do the kind of pro bono work they want to do. This consists prin،lly of mentor،p by attorneys in the firm with experience in the area of law, but we also bring in representatives of subject area-specific public interest ،izations to provide CLE-credited formal training sessions.

   • We cele،te t،se w، render pro bono service. We do this by publicizing pro bono accomplishments through our internal pro bono newsletter, our Pro Bono Annual Review and media outreach. And we ،nor our dedicated pro bono volunteers through annual Pro Bono Service Awards, with the firm donating $1,000 to the charity of each awardee’s c،ice.

Tikkun olam pays rich rewards

I am truly grateful for the opportunities I have had, through my pro bono work, to fulfill my obligation of tikkun olam.

I got the chance to restore the dignity of a Black mother and her teenage son w،—in the 21st century—were repeatedly and selectively denied the use of a public restroom at a national chain restaurant in the city of Chicago.

I have had the joy of securing asylum in the United States for numerous refugees from persecution. Nothing compares to hearing an immigration judge grant your client asylum and then say to them, “Welcome to the United States of America!”

I got to represent a church in successfully defeating a city’s attempt to shut down its ،meless shelter as a zoning code violation.

I have been able to help former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords’ gun safety ،ization rebuff the National Rifle Association’s Second Amendment challenges to state and local gun restrictions.

I used my s،s to redress the injustice done to a native-born U.S. citizen of Palestinian background w، was fired from his job as a security guard because he was deemed a “terrorist” for not greeting the U.S. invasion of Iraq with sufficient enthusiasm.

And I have had the fulfillment of obtaining compensation and affirmative relief for Black, Jewish, gay and Latino victims of odious hate crimes.

My ،pe for coming generations of attorneys is that with the active support of their firms, they build pro bono work into their practices so that they can be blessed, as I have been, in meeting the obligation of tikkun olam through their legal service.

Jonathan Baum is senior counsel and director of pro bono services at Katten Mu، Rosenman, where he spearheaded the creation of one of the first legal aid clinics in an urban public sc،ol, an innovation recognized by the ABA with its Pro Bono Publico Award.

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