Giving Thanks
California Lawyer

Giving Thanks

November 2013

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In my family, Thanksgiving Day is filled with loved ones and friends, tradition and ritual, decadent food, and football. It is, needless to say, my favorite holiday.

But it's not without its heartaches. For decades, I have patiently waited for my father to finally relinquish his role

as the Thanksgiving turkey carver. Last year was going to be my final year as his apprentice. However, after the so-called Drumstick Incident, I was unceremoniously advised, in proceedings rife with due process irregularities, that my 21-year-old son would henceforth assume the turkey-carving duties. Somehow, the jury of my family had concluded that, with a carving knife in my hand, I'm a threat to myself and others.

Still, even this setback has not diminished my love for this holiday, which encourages me to be thankful for what is actually right about our world.

For one thing, I am thankful that I will sit down with my wife and family, secure in the knowledge that more couples have the recognition of marriage. The U.S. Supreme Court's decision on California's Proposition 8 and its more substantive ruling striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act essentially ended the legal fight over gay marriage in our state.

While I applaud the results, I also recognize that tens of millions of Californians are dismayed and upset by these developments. I predict, however, that in years to come marriage equality will fade as a pressing issue. Recent polls indicate that 58 percent of Californians support the right of same-sex couples to marry, and the percentage climbs to a whopping 76 percent for California voters ages 18 to 29.

I am also thankful that our state's prosecutors strive to collaborate with one another. Prosecutors and their agencies will always fight over funds, turf, and "the big case." But in other states, discord frequently arises due to the personalities of the organizations' leaders, their political ambitions, and historical rifts that never seem to heal. (An often-cited example is New York City, where the district attorney and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York have been butting heads for decades.)

That's not the case here. In fact, insiders will tell you that compared to other states and jurisdictions, the relationships among California's various state and federal prosecutorial offices "have played well with each other." There are occasional disputes that need to be worked out, but generally we are indeed the "golden state" in this regard.

I am thankful for our state's public interest and government lawyers. How many of us are willing, on a daily basis, to go down to skid row to try to save a teenager on the verge of throwing his or her life away? How many would fight a maddening bureaucracy to make sure that veterans receive the benefits to which they are legally entitled? Or endure implicit and sometimes explicit threats to the safety of ourselves and our families for prosecuting gang members or individuals associated with drug cartels?

As a public defender, could you go to court each day knowing you're likely to lose the majority of your cases, yet continue to do your job with skill and passion because that is what our Constitution and our sense of justice require?

The lawyers from public interest legal advocacy organizations and governmental agencies play a critical role in providing Californians with meaningful opportunities to access justice, and these lawyers take on daunting challenges with great skill and supreme dedication. Often paid significantly less than what they could earn elsewhere, these attorneys are some of the very best (and all too often overlooked) among us.

I am thankful that in challenging times many law firms have not left pro bono work behind. When the great recession started, many predicted that pro bono programs would be decimated as partners faced difficult decisions between their firms' profitability and commitment to voluntarism. As we slowly begin to emerge from the economic downturn, it is clear that those predictions were wrong.

Accurate, up-to-date statistics are hard to come by, but most indicators suggest that law firms, especially California's largest ones, remain strongly committed to pro bono efforts.

In fact, pro bono programs are more institutionalized now than ever before. They are better organized and managed, and they are being coordinated more constructively with complementary programs at other firms, legal services organizations, law schools, governmental organizations, and the bench (all the way up to our state Supreme Court).

Many increasingly acknowledge that pro bono programs also provide more varied opportunities for lawyers who want to get involved or develop practice skills. Major fee-generating clients are also much more likely to strongly encourage (or require) their outside lawyers to be involved in pro bono programs.

Though total pro bono hours in the state likely are down (because head counts are down due to layoffs, less hiring, greater efficiencies, and smaller summer associate classes), the average number of pro bono hours per attorney and the ratio of firms' pro bono hours to total hours are approaching or have reached pre-recession levels. Not only are pro bono programs critical vehicles for hundreds of thousands of Californians to access justice, but they also eloquently honor our profession's centuries-long definition of what it means to be a lawyer.

As for my own predicament, I'm desperately hoping that one of these dedicated pro bono lawyers will soon help me challenge my family's patently unjust decision to strip me of my turkey-carving birthright. In the meantime, I wish you all a happy Thanksgiving!

Dan Grunfeld, a partner at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius in Los Angeles, heads its West Coast litigation practice and serves on California Lawyer's editorial advisory board.

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