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Law Firm's 'Chow for Charity' Program: Scraps for the Poor or Meaningful Charity?

Of course, we all know that there's no such thing as a free lunch -- especially if you're a summer associate at Simpson Thacher, with a $60 expense account for lunch and an option to limit yourself to a $15 lunch and give the remaining $45 to legal aid. In that situation, your free lunch isn't free; instead, it's a veritable microcosm for everything that's wrong with charity in America, as Daniel Gross writes in this provocative article, Fifteen Dollars' Worth of Smug: What a New York law firm's charity-lunch program reveals about America (Slate, 7/17/07).

Gross profiles the Simpson Thacher Chow for Charity program, where summer associates can elect not to enjoy a $60 per person lunch with a firm lawyer. Instead, if they choose to eat with the lawyer at a more down-scale joint and spend $15 or less each, the firm will donate the difference ($45 per person) to a nonprofit legal group like Legal Aid. Gross points out that the program reflects a number of important trends, including (1) A Touch of Conscience (where most companies pay lip service to concerns like global warming or poverty); (2) The New Guilded Age (where fat and happy law firms think nothing of the absurdity of giving students a $60 allowance for lunch); (3) Defining Public Service Down (a situation where most people claim interest in community service but don't want the lower incomes that go with it, so they find a win-win situation like doing pro bono at a large firm); and (4)  It's Good To Be the King (describing how partners set priorities and realize that the $15 lunch is quicker and gets associates back to billing more quickly and spares partners from socializing). 

PG at Blog de novo comments that Gross' economics are skewed -- because parnters aren't really king of the hill. The post comments that in comparison with those in the investment industry, partners at firms are really like day laborers rather than capitalist owners. PG has it part right -- law firm partners aren't owners of capital, but they think they are, which perhaps makes their situation even more unfortunate. But it doesn't refute Gross' main point, which is that the Chow for Charity lunch is a partner-driven concept, not something arrived at by consensus with associates or the bar associations.

Nuts and Boalts says that Gross completely misses the point in his piece and takes us through a play-by-play response. N&B believes that any money that the program saves on lunches is a good thing, because the extra goes to charity. Moreover, because associates don't routinely spend $60 per lunch but the firm always pays the $45 difference, N&B points out that the program does cost the firm money. And N&B also says that pro bono at firms isn't ornamental -- but that they peform a substantial amount (for instance, Simpson says it does 50,000 hours of community service each year). 

As for me, I'm on the fence about Gross' post. I do agree with the trends that Gross tracks, and he's certainly right to question law firms' motives and the hypocrisy and snobbery of many of these giving systems. At the same time,  I can't decide if these drawbacks are outweighed by the concommitant results. After all, if students are going to be working at large firms for the summer anyway, why not give them a chance to help generate money for a legal aid group? A $45/day contribution for 10 weeks comes to $2,250 per associate; and if the firm has 50 summer associates, that's $112,000 for a legal aid group (which goes a lot further than using a summer associate to do the work pro bono; $112,000 could hire one, maybe two full-time legal aid staff attorneys). 

Do charity and pro bono have to hurt? Is it only valuable if it entails sacrifice? Who contributes more to pro bono -- the summer associate at Simpson who gives up a lunch or the law student who works for $2,250 for the entire summer at a legal aid group? What's your view?

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on July 19, 2007 at 05:46 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

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