1 January 2020
At a time in which many governments that traditionally supported civil society no longer promote reasoned civil discourse, the mantle of moral leadership falls to us as members of the legal profession and officers of the court, the last bastion against governmental overreach and market excess. It is up to us to take up defense of the public interest, pro bono publico, engaging with today's greatest challenges - whether fighting modern slavery, the plight of transnational migrants, or the pollution of our oceans and planet - in the only way they can truly be resolved: through the efforts of each and every one of us individually. It is up to us to reach out to those lost or forgotten in globalization, both around the corner and around the globe, as Advocates of Conscience with the same or greater passion with which we as a profession have been so effective at fighting for the global elite.
Commercialism has long reigned supreme in corporate legal culture, just as former Yale Law School Dean Anthony Kronman predicted decades ago in The Lost Lawyer. Today, disruptive innovations are transforming the practice of law, and resources available for lawyers to undertake public interest work are increasingly giving way to global competition in the legal services market. As a result, lawyers in multinational law firms and corporate legal departments are forced to locate themselves within the market rather than above it as members of an exalted and independent profession preserving the administration of justice and restraining market excess. This continuing "crisis" in legal professionalism results in lawyers exhibiting "alarming rates of depression, alcoholism, drug dependence, and suicidality" amid "dehumanizing competition.” While this is a concern for hopeful law students, overworked young associate lawyers, and disenchanted partners, it is also a concern for all of us who are interested in being part of a world that realizes access to justice under the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 16, an “enabling goal” for the entire SDG agenda. Local advocates are essential to such progress, but many of those best placed to develop collaborative momentum via partnerships on transnational public interest legal projects are lawyers in multinational corporate legal settings.
Unfortunately, the laudable commitment to public interest engagement at many corporate headquarters in the West is often less forceful in other parts of the world where the greatest needs are found, due in large part to business concerns over relationships with paying multinational clients who may be perceived to have adverse interests. Of course, it is no surprise that law firms and corporate legal departments act like businesses in a globally competitive market. Rather than criticizing them, we should applaud the public interest work they do while recognizing that such corporate programs are never going to be sufficient on their own to meet the public interest legal challenges of our globalizing world. Put simply, our institutions need our help.
This is why, in 2018, legal professionals around the world came together to found The Global Pro Bono Bar, a legal professional membership and advocacy organization dedicated to empowering individual Advocates of Conscience to realize universal human rights, human dignity, and critical public interest advocacy in areas of broad moral consensus. We are building teams of individual legal professionals - lawyers at law firms and corporate legal departments, academics, retirees, students, former legal professionals who have put their careers on hold to care for their families, and others - who want to see a better world for our children and are not afraid to get involved in a global network beyond the constraints of business. We call upon leaders in the private sector to join in The Global Pro Bono Pledge, affirming the freedom of all legal professionals who work for them (absent any clear legal barrier) to provide pro bono or public interest legal services as a matter of individual conscience and legal professionalism, not only when it is convenient for market positioning, but rather as and when there is an opportunity to make a difference.
This is a time for moral awakening in our profession. Addressing global challenges and reclaiming the dignity of the legal profession require us to rise above limited moral imagination and shifting political winds. We need to take responsibility, not as members of law firms or citizens of states, but as global citizens and Advocates of Conscience responding to the ultimate calling to work hand-in-hand within and across borders to build a better future for our common humanity.
Now is the time. Advocates of Conscience, join the legal revolution to fight global injustice.
Rob Houston, J.D.
The Global Pro Bono Bar Association
* Each individual identified above has indicated to The Global Pro Bono Bar that he or she wishes to join with us in signing this open letter in his or her personal capacity and not on behalf of any organization with which he or she may be affiliated. The appearance of any particular name of an individual on this list along with his or her respective affiliation in no way indicates that the views or opinions expressed above represent the views or opinions of any listed organization.
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