Atinuke Adediran's Work on Pro Bono Legal Services Featured in Jotwell

Legal Elites Serving the Poor (or Not?)

One of the things that struck me most early on in law school was the notion that some paths were considered more elite and desirable than others. I simply didn’t understand why my classmates were obsessed with particular opportunities. That was, until I attended a diversity reception at a large law firm during my first year, where someone mentioned the starting salary for lawyers (at the time $125,000). Suddenly, I understood why law students seemed so desperate to secure jobs at large law firms after graduation.

As it turns out, those running elite, large law firms understand that some law students experience a conflict when deciding on what path to take after graduation: pursue the money and perceived prestige associated with the work done by large law firms or fulfill a desire to help people without easy access to legal services. It is important, at least in part, for there to be strong pro bono initiatives at elite large law firms because they enable talented attorneys to pursue both goals in tandem. Atinuke Adediran’s recent work, however, challenges the efficacy of that narrative.

In 2017, Professor Adediran conducted a qualitative study of the relationship between pro bono services provided by large law firms via nonprofit legal services organizations (NLSOs), and she draws upon her fascinating findings in two forthcoming papers: The Relational Costs of Free Legal Services and Solving the Pro Bono Mismatch. To obtain a better understanding of the relationship between NLSOs and large law firms, she interviewed thirty-eight executive directors or pro bono coordinators of NLSOs and thirty-six individuals at large law firms responsible for coordinating each firm’s pro bono activities. What Adediran found is that the pro bono services provided by elite large law firms often do not line up with the true needs of the poor identified by NLSOs—and this disjunction, she explains, creates a “pro bono mismatch.” Perhaps more importantly, she founds that the power dynamic between law firms and NLSOs is often imbalanced, with NLSOs sometimes spending significant resources on pro bono matters that are more important to the lawyers at law firms than the poor the services are supposed to help. In short, big firm lawyers providing pro bono services to the poor may not be doing as much good as they—and we—think in addressing the need for greater access to legal services for certain populations.

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