Jim Walden is a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, the kind of white shoe firm where lawyers represent major corporations at rates of nearly a thousand dollars per hour. His name has been popping up on Streetsblog recently because he represents a politically-connected group attempting to undo the redesign of Prospect Park West. According to press accounts, Walden is doing this work at no charge to the client. Walden would not comment to Streetsblog for this story.
Under the ethical standards of the legal profession, lawyers are expected to donate a certain amount of their time pro bono publico, for the good of the public, and some of Walden’s pro bono representations are quite impressive. In 2007, he received Gibson Dunn’s top award for exemplary pro bono work for representing 11,000 New Yorkers whose food stamps had been wrongfully terminated. Last June, Walden won a pro bono case in front of the United States Supreme Court preventing a legal resident from being deported for a minor drug offense.
Walden’s newest pro bono case, however, doesn’t rise to the standard he’s set in the past. In representing a group of Brooklyn residents fighting against the traffic-calming Prospect Park West street redesign, Walden is devoting his pro bono time to the affluent and politically connected, not those in need.
The New York City Bar Association’s statement of pro bono principles, which Gibson Dunn has signed on to, defines pro bono work as legal services provided without fee to:
- “persons of limited means,
- charitable, religious, civic, cultural, community, governmental and educational organizations committed to serving the needs of persons of limited means and/or in matters which are designed primarily to address the needs of persons of limited means,
- individuals, groups or organizations seeking to secure or protect civil rights, civil liberties or public rights,
- individuals, groups or organizations who have been harmed by a natural disaster or public emergency or who are providing assistance to persons harmed by a natural disaster or public emergency, and
- charitable, religious, civic, cultural, community, governmental and educational organizations in matters in furtherance of their organizational purposes, where the payment of legal fees would significantly deplete the organization’s economic resources.”
Esther Lardent, the president of the Pro Bono Institute, wouldn’t comment on the particulars of a specific case, but did share some general principles about pro bono work. “If this is something that could be handled on a contingency basis in the marketplace,” explained Lardent, “that would be unlikely to be something that could happen on a pro bono basis.” If the clients can afford to pay, in other words, it’s not likely to merit pro bono services.
The Pro Bono Institute is a non-profit organization that helps support pro bono work; Gibson Dunn has signed on to the institute’s Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge. “In recognition of the special needs of the poor for legal services, we believe that our firm’s pro bono activities should be particularly focused on providing access to the justice system for persons otherwise unable to afford it,” reads one section of that challenge.
The pro bono coordinator of another major law firm, who asked to remain anonymous in order to protect the firm, told Streetsblog that while different firms have different approaches to pro bono work, “We try to focus all of our pro bono on helping the poor, or helping institutions that help the poor, or advancing rights.”
It’s hard to call the leaders of the anti-bike lane group either poor or powerless. The group’s leading spokespeople are Norman Steisel, a former deputy mayor, and Louise Hainline, a dean at Brooklyn College. They have published letters in print and online media alongside Iris Weinshall, a former DOT commissioner and the wife of Senator Chuck Schumer.