With deep sadness at her passing, and deep appreciation for her leadership, the Association of Pro Bono Counsel joins so many others in honoring the life of Esther Lardent, who died this week. For over two decades, Esther was a singular and irresistible force in turning the legal profession towards its ethical duty to serve the poor, challenge social inequity, and bridge the justice gap. As the doyenne of pro bono publico — legal work done for free for the good of the public — Esther was without peer, and she will be deeply missed.
As the founder and leader of the Pro Bono Institute, established in 1996, Esther was seemingly everywhere, an indefatigable voice of the better angels of the legal profession. Her call resounded, and she succeeded wonderfully. Since PBI’s founding, the number of hours of pro bono legal services contributed by large law firms, and more recently corporations, has soared, now averaging approximately 5 million hours of donated time and expertise annually, much of that on behalf of our most vulnerable persons.
Not a visionary only, Esther was highly practical. She loved the nuts and bolts of pro bono work as much as the ethical imperative and the social calculus that underlie the profession. She made the “business case” for pro bono work, repeatedly enumerating all the ways in which a healthy pro bono practice benefits not only our clients, but the lawyers, law firms and corporations that embrace the effort. She instituted a public “Pro Bono Challenge” to get firms and corporations to deliver more help to those in need. She insisted that “what gets measured, gets counted,” urging us all to assess and value pro bono hours alongside billable hours when weighing the overall performance of our institutions.
Esther seemed at times indispensable to the cause. Yet she would be the first to demur from that conclusion. She was modest in her accomplishments. She loved to laugh. She read widely and enjoyed the theater and films. And she loved to teach. Many of today’s law firm pro bono leaders, including most if not all of the 179 members of APBCo, fondly recall learning essential lessons about the always-evolving craft of pro bono publico from Esther.
At APBCo, we are indebted to Esther. She passed the pro bono torch to so many of us. It is an obligation that we are honored to carry on.