Ask any lawyer. Pro bono clients are never in the middle of the spectrum. They are usually the biggest pain in the ass clients. When someone isn’t paying you, they feel (and they are right) that they are just as entitled to your time as your hourly clients – but they have no disincentive to keeping you on the phone for an hour.
But, sometimes they are also the most rewarding clients. They are the ones who you meet on the phone, with the cracking voice, who say “I need help.” They are the ones that awaken your faded sense of altruism, that suppress your cynicism for a few minutes, and they wind up convincing (or conning) you into sending them an engagement letter that says “pro bono” on it.
One of the things I like to do pro bono is defend bit torrent defendants. Many who know me will likely fall out of their chair upon reading that. I’m more well known for handling plaintiff’s bit torrent cases. If you Google my name and “bit torrent” you’ll likely find a lot of articles about cases where I am the plaintiff’s lawyer in bit torrent litigation.
You likely won’t find any articles about when I defend torrenters. That’s not because I don’t do it. I do. But, it serves my clients to keep my mouth shut about any particular torrent defense. Someone who calls me, in trouble for torrenting porn, doesn’t want me screeching to the press about it. We don’t settle the cases with a triumphant marching band. The defendant is happy to be done with the case and moving on with their life. I’m most successful at it when I don’t have to file a motion. I’m successful at it when I don’t have to raise specious arguments, just to try and assert myself in a case. My strategy is a little different — approach opposing counsel like a gentleman, collegially and ethically. Sometimes it requires more than that, but usually, that’s enough to get my client a good deal.
And that makes me feel like I did a good day’s work. The client is always grateful. But, sometimes, they really reach out in a way that makes me receptive to taking the next one pro bono.
Today, a fruit basket arrived — from a pro bono torrent client. Thoughtful? You betcha. I’m chowing down on a pear right now, courtesy of someone I wouldn’t take money from. Being Sicilian, the gift of food is a high compliment. It isn’t just nourishing my aging body — I can feel the appreciation giving me life. Restoring my childish desire to give away my time just to hear someone say “thank you” (or send me food to say the same).
On the same day, another package came… with a card that said:
“Thanks so much for getting me out of this lawsuit. A little token of my appreciation.”
With it, a pair of First Amendment cufflinks.
Does this person get me or what?
Had I charged these defendants, I’d have made some money. That money would be co-mingled with all the other money I made. I wouldn’t have looked at a stack of bills in a few years and said “this is something I earned in a case back in 2012.”
But, I’ll always remember the thoughtfulness of two defendants who needed my help. Just when I was getting really jaded about pro bono clients, I get the double whammy today… reminding me that being a lawyer is, above all, about helping people. We have a responsibility to do pro bono work. But, it isn’t just so that everyone can afford a lawyer — I believe that pro bono helps keep me more human. It reminds me of the fact that my pleadings and filings and agreements affect real people — and lets me deliver some positivity into the karmic whirlwind.
Sometimes, they give us back something more valuable than any money they could have paid us. They give us a little “thank you,” that also says “I get you.”