Federal appeals court Judge David Tatel and U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. shared their pro bono experiences and inspirations that led them to take up public service jobs during a panel discussion Friday morning.
The discussion was part of the Equal Justice Works Annual Conference and Career Fair and was moderated by the organization’s executive director, David Stern. About 300 potential law students, law school faculty and lawyers themselves filled a ballroom at the Marriott in the Washington neighborhood of Woodley Park to hear the two speak.
Throughout Verrilli’s career, the one case that had the most affected him was Wiggins v. Smith, a pro bono matter that he argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003. In a court battle that lasted 11 years, Verrilli won a new sentencing hearing for his client after the Supreme Court ruled that the client had ineffective counsel. The original attorney failed to present evidence during the sentencing phase of the trial of the client’s physical and sexual abuse.
“That was, to me, the most enriching I’ve ever done, probably ever will,” Verrilli said.
For Tatel, who serves on U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, what drove him to go to law school and ultimately pursue a career in public service was the summer he spent as an intern during the Kennedy administration. When Tatel graduated from law school, public interest law was blossoming, he said. Not only were there positions with nonprofits and government, he said, but law firms were developing their pro bono program and competing aggressively against one another to form the best practice.
“At that particular time, no one was even talking about things like billable hours – nobody even counted them at that time,” Tatel said. “The financial incentives were totally different. When I graduated from law school and went to work at a major Chicago law firm, I earned $300 a month less than my wife, who was teaching 9th grade in Chicago public schools.”
Despite the numerous changes in the field of law over the past 40 years, Tatel said, there is an even greater demand for public service legal work nowadays.
Verrilli added: “Much to the chagrin of my former firm, I am not a big believer in the notion that the best place to get training as a young lawyer is at a law firm.”
By entering a job with the government or a nonprofit, Verrilli said young lawyers could gain more responsibility faster and enter the courtroom sooner. Coupled with that opportunity, however, is a commitment to hard work and listening to the guidance of mentors. Ultimately, though, lawyers have a responsibility to do pro bono work and take on public service work, he said.
“Being a lawyer has almost inherently a very important public service component built into it,” Verrilli said.
National Law Journal photos by Diego M. Radzinschi.