Panel finds modern pro bono lessons in 1962 film

Chicago Daily Law Bulletin
By Marc Karlinsky  | Law Bulletin staff writer

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Many of the lawyers that gathered at a North Side theater Friday hadn’t read or watched To Kill a Mockingbird since their high school years.

When they did finally revisit the 1962 classic film last week they watched it for credit just as they did years ago.

About 200 attorneys assembled at the Music Box Theatre to cap off Pro Bono Week by viewing the screen adaptation of Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, then discussing how the ethical challenges in the story translate to the real-world practice of law.

By watching the film and listening to the panel’s discussion, attorneys earned 1.5 Continuing Legal Education credits.

To Kill a Mockingbird tells the tale of Atticus Finch, a lawyer in a small Depression-era Alabama town tasked with representing Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of rape.

In a discussion following the end credits, a panel agreed that Finch’s representation of Robinson symbolized the ideal role of a lawyer serving justice even when there is no compensation for his work.

That’s why we love Atticus he makes lawyers look good, said U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman. Lawyers are so much the butt of jokes, and here’s someone who stands up and has a conscience and shows morality, and that’s important.

In the film, the local judge visits Finch on his porch and asks him to serve pro bono. While that scenario is unlikely in modern Chicago courts, panelists stressed the value in working for free early in an attorney’s career.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa M. Madigan said she gained vital job skills when she was pulled into a pro bono case 18 years ago, soon after she started at Sachnoff & Weaver, now part of Reed, Smith LLP.

While I had some knowledge substantively of what to do, this was probably the first time I was ever taking a deposition, Madigan said. It can be a challenging situation, but it is a very good one as long as you have a partner who’s overseeing you.

She said that pro bono work is one way attorneys can regain a sense of purpose in the middle of hectic firm life, because it fulfills one of the ambitions many lawyers had before law school.

My belief is that at least 90-plus percent of us, when we had to write the essay for getting into law school on why we wanted to go, said we wanted to help people, we wanted to make a difference, Madigan said. It’s in all of us, that desire.

Stephen R. Patton, the city of Chicago’s corporation counsel, said attorneys shouldn’t shy away from taking pro bono cases because they’re afraid to venture outside their normal area of practice.

Beyond gaining new experience, the former Kirkland & Ellis LLP partner said, pro bono work helps attorneys at large firms maintain a healthier perspective.

Increasingly, I’m concerned that our profession like our society is becoming more haves and have-nots.

He said firms are not comfortable sending out young attorneys to work with the public like they previously did and it’s easier to grow sheltered.

That hurts you as a human being, but it also hurts you as a trial lawyer, Patton said. Because at the end of the day, you’ve got to relate to regular people and not a bunch of other fat cats making big money, working in a nice high-rise building with a great view of Lake Michigan.

Coleman said tackling pro bono cases also helps attorneys gain recognition from judges, who understand the unique challenges faced in the pro bono arena.

Judges, we talk about your efforts, Coleman said. That’s something that goes to your reputation and that can go and help your career.

The Movies on Trial panel was moderated by Paula E. Litt, a partner at Schopf & Weiss LLP.

Schopf & Weiss hosts an annual film-watching event each May and was approached by The Chicago Bar Association and The Chicago Bar Foundation to collaborate on a special event for Pro Bono Week.

Audience members said they enjoyed spending a Friday afternoon watching the film and hearing discussion of the justice system by respected voices.

Richard F. Kohn, a Deerfield-based sole practitioner, said he was drawn to attend by Madigan’s participation, but he also appreciated seeing the film after so many years.

I was a kid when it came out, Kohn said. I long forgot how it went.

Jeffrey L. Graubart, a Chicago native who owns an entertainment law practice in Pasadena, Calif., said he was impressed with the creative way to provide CLE credit and with the enthusiasm of the attorneys there.

I’m a lawyer based in New York and California, and each time I come to an event like this, I’m proud to be an Illinois lawyer first, he said.


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