‘Rock star’ litigators share how they have made a difference through pro bono
They descended on the 2013 _ Section of Litigation Annual Conference in Chicago without electric guitars or a phalanx of roadies, but they were called rock stars nonetheless.
Headlining a session titled “Litigators Making a Difference” was a trio of litigation heavyweights who have, indeed, made a difference in the evolution of American jurisprudence: National Women’s Law Center founder Marcia Greenberger, former acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal and First Amendment, gay rights and voting rights champion Paul Smith.
Judge Ann Claire Williams of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a pathbreaking and accomplished jurist herself, posed questions to the group. She referred to the panelists as “rock stars,” peppering the lawyers with questions about their careers and the notion that the bar’s commitment to pro bono helped make their work possible.
Throughout the discussion, the panelists admitted their humanness while emphasizing the important role of volunteer legal services.
Katyal, raised in the Chicago area by immigrant parents from India, explained that the prevailing culture in the subcontinent favors professions such as medicine and engineering over law.
“My parents cried” when he told them he planned to go to law school, he said. As a young boy, Katyal wanted to become a doctor because they help people, but his attitude changed after his father obtained redress against his employer in a civil suit with the help of a court-appointed lawyer.
Greenberger said that after graduating from law school, she became the first woman hired at a small tax law firm in Washington, D.C. She ended up working for Arthur Goldberg, a former U.S. Supreme Court justice who helped found the Center for Law and Social Policy in 1969. Women at the organization insisted that the young public-interest law firm work on women’s rights issues, so Goldberg encouraged Greenberger to start the center’s Women’s Rights Project.
The arrangement “was with the understanding that I would work on other issues if there wasn’t enough work to keep one lawyer busy full time,” Greenberger recalled with a smile. In the 40 years since, the project became the National Women’s Law Center, which helped secure passage of major legislation and provided counsel in landmark litigation establishing legal protections for women.
Smith said he was so nervous during his first Supreme Court oral argument that he developed “psychosomatic laryngitis” the night before and was therefore not able to be as forceful as he wanted to be.
Smith, a partner at Jenner & Block who successfully argued the landmark gay rights case Lawrence v. Texas, emphasized how available pro bono work is to lawyers.
“You can find the time to find a pro bono issue that you care about,” Smith said. “And if you don’t do that, you’re not going to stick around — you’re just not going to find the satisfaction you need. There are people out there with public-interest organizations who will work with you so you can find a meaningful role.”
Greenberger underscored the role that private lawyers play in public-interest law, noting that the National Women’s Law Center and similar groups often rely on lawyers from large and small firms alike to help them litigate cases.
Finding one’s passion as a lawyer was deemed critical by the panelists, who emphasized that lawyers doing pro bono can have a positive effect.
As a young Katyal observed after his father’s successful lawsuit, medicine isn’t the only helping profession out there.
“A lawyer can take a wounded family and stitch it back together,” he concluded.