Esther Lardent, '71: "A Gift for Lawyers"

As an undergraduate at Brown University, Esther Lardent, ’71, had her career as a movie and theater reviewer completely planned out. She would write reviews for local publications “until someone from The New Yorker died or retired.” But then, Lardent says, “the world just exploded.” She is referring to the Civil Rights movement and the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia. “I saw a lot of wrongs that needed to be righted, and I wanted to change the world.” The strength of this conviction drove her to study law.

Today, Lardent is the president of the Pro Bono Institute at the Georgetown University Law Center. She says, “I did hands-on public interest work and got frustrated because I couldn’t reach enough people. This is the perfect job for me because although I’m several steps removed from the front lines, what we do helps lots of people. Additionally, I work with lawyers who have a tremendous passion for justice. We get to work with caring, wonderful, smart, committed people.”

The Pro Bono Institute works at the national level, developing the programmatic underpinnings so corporate lawyers can pick whatever type of pro bono work best meshes with their own interests. One current program, Corporate Pro Bono, works with major companies and their attorneys. “Pro bono interests vary from person to person,” Lardent says. Lawyers may pick a certain kind of work because it is intellectually challenging, because of personal experiences, or because a particular cause moves them. Corporate attorneys are “doing things from one-hour advice clinics, to representing immigrants trying to stay in the United States, to death row inmates,” Lardent says.

The program has been very successful. “In 2000, ‘corporate pro bono’ was an oxymoron. In 2002, it was an interesting idea. In 2005, there’s an aura of inevitability about it.” Top attorneys for major companies are leading the effort. Lardent says that practicing law in a corporate environment is so stressful and time consuming that lawyers’ lives can start to feel overwhelming. “Pro bono offers the opportunity to break out of that and explore new things and see the effects of their efforts immediately,” Lardent says.

Global Pro Bono, another PBI program, also excites Lardent because it provides an “American export for good.” Lardent has worked with people in Australia, Brazil, the United Kingdom, and various provinces of Canada; she’s also heard interest expressed in Singapore, France, the Czech Republic, and South Africa. Lardent says that pro bono helps lawyers gain a sense of immediacy about the millions of people around the world in dire situations. “Pro bono used to be a uniquely American phenomenon because the United States does a poor job of providing public support for legal services, making supplemental pro bono assistance critically important. The poor and disadvantaged in the United States desperately need legal help, but, particularly in the aftermath of the events of 9/11, lawyers here also want to help fight poverty and promote fairness throughout the world.” Lardent says. Pro bono “takes us out of our own self involvement and lets us reconnect to that sense of immediacy,” she says. “Pro bono is a gift for lawyers.”

Lardent also teaches a course called “Doing Good and Doing Well” one semester a year at Georgetown for students destined to work at large law firms. She teaches that one can be a public interest lawyer no matter where one works. Lardent suggests that, in general, lawyers are very privileged and should understand what other people’s lives are like. “Pro bono helps you remember why you went to law school,” she suggests. "It's a multi-vitamin for good."