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Public Counsel Gets Aggressive

Publication Date: 
June 12, 2012
Daily Journal
Jason W. Armstrong

Professor Deborah Rhode spoke with the Daily Journal's Jason W. Armstrong on the "trade-off" involved when firms take up highly contentious pro bono issues.

Public Counsel's Shashi Hanuman didn't mince words in a May 21 public statement about a letter the legal nonprofit shot off to the Los Angeles planning department assailing the environmental study of the city's massive downtown Farmers Field football stadium project.

"The neighborhoods around downtown need to stay affordable," said Hanuman, the organization's director of community development. "The draft report does not sufficiently analyze how the project will affect rents and housing prices" in surrounding areas.


"In theory, firms could be reticent to get involved" with public interest law organization work involving hot-button issues, said Deborah L. Rhode, Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law at Stanford Law School who is an expert in public policy and ethics and has written a book studying lawyers' pro bono work.

In the 2000s, she said, some firms experienced "pushback" for representing Guantanamo Bay defendants pro bono, with critics suggesting that other firm clients "pull their business" because of the controversial nature of the case involving terrorism defendants. But the firms didn't lose business as a result, and Rhode said lawyers at other firms in fact began trying to solicit Guantanamo-related work.

She said "there's often a tradeoff involved" when firms take up highly contentious pro bono issues.

"You get more visibility with the more high-profile cases," she said. Also, the public interest organization is perceived as "doing important work."