Chief Judge McMahon Delivers Remarks on Jeremy Epstein’s Legacy and the Importance of Pro Bono Work

The City Bar Justice Center recently kicked off National Pro Bono Week with the 2016 Jeremy G. Epstein Awards for Outstanding Pro Bono Service. Hon. Colleen McMahon, Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York delivered remarks on the importance of providing legal services to the public. In her speech, she noted that “When we think about doing pro bono work, we tend to think about providing professional service to someone who cannot afford to pay for it. And that is indeed one way to think about ‘pro bono’ work. But there is more to pro bono than that. The phrase ‘pro bono publico’ means ‘for the public good,’  — not ‘for the good of someone who can’t afford a lawyer.’ When a lawyer performs work pro bono publico, he is expressing, consciously or unconsciously, a belief that society is well-served when individuals and organizations unable to afford counsel have competent legal representation.”

Read Chief Judge McMahon’s full remarks below.

Epstein Awards

Back row: Luba Jabsky, Compliance Analyst, Barclays Capital Inc.; Jane C. Sherburne, Chair, City Bar Fund Board of Directors; Arthur M. Dresner, Of Counsel, Duane Morris LLP; Herman Raspé, Partner, Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler; Brittany M. Bacon, Associate, Hunton & Williams LLP; Jurij Mykolajtchuk, Law Offices of Jurij Mykolajtchuk; John S. Kiernan, President, New York City Bar Association; Lynn M. Kelly, Executive Director, City Bar Justice Center; Yago Cuesta-Civis, Legal Director of Global Operations, Revlon, Inc.; Lauren R. Mendolera, Associate, Sullivan & Cromwell LLP; Bret I. Parker, Executive Director, New York City Bar Association. Front row: Jonathan K. Chang, Associate, Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP; Julia B. Milne, Associate, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP; Hon. Colleen McMahon, Chief Judge, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York; Amy Epstein, wife of the late Jeremy G. Epstein, for whom the awards are named; John Low-Beer, Solo Practitioner. Not pictured: Evan K. Farber, Partner, Reed Smith LLP; Virginia F. Tent, Counsel, Latham & Watkins LLP; Elie Jonathan Worenklein, Associate, Debevoise & Plimpton LLP.

Chief Judge McMahon’s Remarks

I am finding that, as Chief Judge of the Southern District of New York, I am offered many opportunities to deliver what speakers call “occasional remarks.”

Some I must accept out of a sense of duty.

But not this one. I could not be more pleased to have this particular opportunity, to speak about a topic that is near and dear to my heart — pro bono representation – and about Jeremy Epstein, an attorney who did as much as anyone in the profession to practice what too many of us are content merely to preach.

It is hard to believe that Jeremy Epstein is no longer with us. From the beginning of my career as a lawyer, I was aware of Jeremy. He was well known among New York City’s litigators. He represented some of the biggest and most important corporate clients in this City. If I remember correctly, he even represented my husband –successfully – at a deposition in a long-running lawsuit against the members of a Board of Directors, which lends him a special place in my pantheon of truly great lawyers!

But Jeremy was not just a successful lawyer. He was recognized throughout the City as a leader of the Bar.

Being a Bar leader may not seem terribly important to certain well-known lawyers today, but being a Bar leader used to be what distinguished very good lawyers from the best of the best.

And Jeremy’s abiding passion as a Bar leader, the issue on which spoke the loudest and longest, was the importance of pro bono work.

I asked George Wade, my dear friend and Jeremy’s partner of long standing, what I should say on this occasion. George replied that the most striking thing about Jeremy was not that he understood the law – although he understood the law very, very well indeed – but that he understood the place of law in the community. Jeremy believed that anyone who took the lawyer’s oath was committing himself to work for the interests of the entire community, not just for his own personal interests.

That attitude is summed up in the phrase “Pro Bono Publico.”

When we think about doing pro bono work, we tend to think about providing professional service to someone who cannot afford to pay for it. And that is indeed one way to think about “pro bono” work. But there is more to pro bono than that. The phrase “pro bono publico” means “for the public good,”  — not “for the good of someone who can’t afford a lawyer.” When a lawyer performs work pro bono publico, he is expressing, consciously or unconsciously, a belief that society is well-served when individuals and organizations unable to afford counsel have competent legal representation. In a country dedicated to the rule of law, lawyers work pro bono publico because they believe that everyone – not just the wealthy and powerful — should have meaningful access to the law, and to the courts, and a real ability to enforce the rules that are supposed to regulate the behavior of all for the protection of all.

When Jeremy was admitted to the bar – when I was admitted to the bar – lawyers had no formal obligation to do any pro bono work, as there is today, when completing 50 hours of pro bono work is a condition of admission to the bar. There was only the sense, instilled in many of us — most particularly those of us who spent many hours in this very building — that it was important to offer our services to those who needed them but could not pay for them. It was a moral obligation, not a statutory or regulatory one; it was summed up by Whitney North Seymour, a former President of this Association, in a speech he delivered here almost a half century ago:

The origin of this broad duty is in the special nature of the profession. It is a necessary corollary of the lawyer’s exclusive franchise to practice law and his vital role in the administration of justice. The public has given the franchise to a select group, deemed by learning and character worthy to enjoy it exclusively, and there arises from that a duty to use these qualities to serve both the private and public interest in exchange.

(By the way, Bob Fiske, who delivered a previous Epstein keynote address, used the same quotation in his speech. I admit that I stole it from Bob, but I think it should be quoted in every Epstein keynote address. The sentiment bears repeating and I don’t think anyone will ever say it better or more eloquently).

Jeremy Epstein more than lived out his and Seymour’s belief that a lawyer’s oath obligated him to work for the community as well as for himself. He gave generously of his time and his immense talent and his treasure; gave to numerous individuals and organizations who needed the help only a well-trained lawyer could provide — from Ted Herring, the intellectually impaired man whose death sentence Jeremy spent 25 years trying to vacate, to his service as a Director of the Legal Aid Society, the Fund for Modern Courts, and of course to our shared passion, Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts.

Jeremy’s devotion to pro bono, which is so much a part of the lawyer he was, probably seems quaint to many today. We live in an era that in almost every way exalts the desires of the individual at the expense of the needs of the community. When success in our profession is measured by piling up a ridiculously excessive number of billable client hours and making more money than one’s counterparts at the firm down the street, it is all too easy to lost sight of clients and potential clients who contribute to the bottom line only a sense of having done a right and goodly thing. Or it is easy to hand off this work to young and inexperienced lawyers — letting them train on matters that more senior lawyers find less important than the work of paying clients.

So Jeremy Epstein would be very proud and happy to be with us in person tonight – though happily, he is here in spirit, represented by his wife Amy, his children Joshua and Amy and their spouses. He would be delighted to honor the wonderful work done by the City Bar Justice Center – an initiative he strongly supported during its formative years – and by you, the 13 attorneys who are being honored tonight for your devotion to clients you have served through the Justice Center’s many pro bono projects. As you will hear in a few minutes, this year’s honorees have helped low income entrepreneurs protect their intellectual property; obtained benefits for the elderly, for veterans, and for homebound cancer patients; explained esoteric legal concepts to pro se litigants at CBJC’s Pro Bono legal clinic in the EDNY; helped debtors navigate the bankruptcy process; and obtained green cards for victims of abuse in other countries —  to cite just a few of the many wonderful projects on which this year’s winners have worked. As a class, you give the lie to any argument that lawyers, or particular types of lawyers, are too busy, or too important, or too stressed to do pro bono work: you are big firm lawyers and sole practitioners; partners and associates; litigators and corporate lawyers and tax specialists. And you have devoted countless hours to these worthy causes – leaving that 50 hours of pro bono requirement in the dust. For all this you are to be congratulated.

But I will hazard a guess than none of you has yet come close to the 5,000 hours that Jeremy is said to have logged on pro bono work during his years as a practicing attorney (I happen to agree with John Kiernan that that number understates what he accomplished).

So in addition to offering you my warmest congratulations, let me add: keep up the good work. Eventually, you might catch him, the man for whom your award is named and in whose memory it is given. And I assure you that you will get more, personally and professionally, out of doing so than you get out of almost any other aspect of your professional life.

Congratulations to you all.