Marc Kadish: Teaching pro bono lessons near and far

September 2011

Vietnam looms large in Marc R. Kadish's mind — the country where Americans went to war in the 1960s, sparking protests and bitter political divisions within the U.S.

"My consciousness was forged by our experiences in the war," said Kadish, director of pro bono activities and litigation training at Mayer Brown. "That's when I came to intellectual maturity."

But until this May, he never stepped foot in Vietnam.

"I was intensely curious as to what my reaction would be," said Kadish, 68, who opposed the Vietnam War in the 1960s and received a draft deferment by doing legal work for the poor. "All the images I had all my life — 'Apocalypse Now,' 'The Deer Hunter,' 'Platoon.' How were the Vietnamese going to greet us? What would their attitude be?"

Curiosity wasn't the only thing that drew Kadish to Vietnam. He visited the Southeast Asian country as a member of an American Bar Association delegation, an exchange between the legal communities of the two countries, 36 years after the United States withdrew its troops and the South Vietnam government fell to communist North Vietnam. It was just the latest of many trips Kadish has taken abroad as he coordinates pro bono work on a global scale for Mayer Brown.

"The largest investment taking place in Vietnam now is by American companies," Kadish said. "The Vietnamese would like for these corporations to feel comfortable with the Vietnamese legal system."

In 2009, a group of Vietnamese lawyers came to Chicago for the ABA national convention and also visited Mayer Brown. This May, the ABA sent Kadish and three other American lawyers to Vietnam as part of its Rule of Law Initiative, which promotes fairness in legal systems around the world.

The American lawyers spent six days in Hanoi and two in Ho Chi Minh City meeting with the leaders of the Vietnamese Bar Federation, bar associations in both cities, faculty members from two law schools and members of the Judicial Academy, a government agency in charge of educating lawyers and judges.

The team also visited two legal aid centers, one in Hanoi and one in a province outside the city. Kadish extended his visit to Vietnam by a couple of days, using the extra time to talk about pro bono work with lawyers at Mayer Brown's offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

After spending 10 days in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Kadish discovered how welcoming the Vietnamese people are.

"They love Americans. They seem to love everything America," he said. "Their attitude was: 'The American war? That was a long time ago. We don't even want to talk about it anymore.' "

Kadish visited Mayer Brown's office in Ho Chi Minh City and encouraged the firm's Vietnamese lawyers to consider doing pro bono work.

He also tried to ask one of the younger lawyers about his family's experiences during the war. Kadish said the lawyer's response was essentially: "I just want to be a lawyer. I wasn't born then. I want to learn about the legal system and how we function as part of an international trade."

Kadish said he hoped to help that country's lawyers learn about pro bono work and clinical legal education, two areas that have dominated his career.

"We had to be careful not to say to them, 'Oh, clearly, the American legal system is superior and therefore, we're here to lecture you,' " Kadish said. "It was more like: 'This has been my experience. Which parts of my experience are of interest to you and can help you? Please let us know what we can do to assist you and help you, but you set the goals.' "

One of the Vietnamese legal system's biggest challenges is the small number of lawyers: just 6,000 for a population of about 90 million or one lawyer for every 15,000 people. In contrast, the United States has more than 1 million lawyers or about one for every 300 residents. The government of Vietnam has set a goal of increasing the number of lawyers to 20,000 within a decade.

"The government's concern was that their current way of delivering legal education does not enhance critical thought," Kadish said. "It's mostly lectures with very little interplay between teacher and the student."

Starting the lessons

The leaders of Vietnam bar groups were eager to hear about Kadish's experiences teaching at Chicago-Kent College of Law, where he was a law professor for 20 years before joining Mayer Brown in 1999.

"To me, the best way to learn how to be a lawyer is to do what lawyers do," Kadish said. At Chicago-Kent, "I didn't just lecture them on things. I would say, 'Here's the problem. You've got a client who's never been in trouble before, and you think he's a really good guy and he's charged with murder. What do the rules of evidence permit you to do?' "

Since Kadish joined Mayer Brown, education has remained a key part of what he does. He doesn't just oversee pro bono work — he also uses those cases as a tool for helping lawyers continue learning.

"The part of my job that I love the most is when I act in essence as a clinical law professor — working with lawyers at the firm and saying, 'You want to learn how to try a case? The best way to learn how to try a case is to try a case.' We go over to 26th Street (the Cook County Criminal Courts Building) and we try murder cases. We've done death-penalty cases, serious felonies."

Kadish talked about all of this during his visit to Vietnam.

"Clearly, the notion of pro bono is not instilled in the Vietnamese legal culture at this particular point," he said. "We had to be careful not to say, 'Oh, you should be doing pro bono work.' I don't believe that Vietnamese lawyers are as financially successful as American lawyers are."

Another member of the ABA delegation, Washington State Bar Association Executive Director Paula Littlewood said Vietnam simply doesn't have enough lawyers to allow much time for pro bono work.

But Littlewood sensed that the Vietnamese lawyers were very interested in Kadish's descriptions of the extensive pro bono work at Mayer Brown.

"I think that was hugely helpful," she said. "He was fabulous."

Apart from meeting with the country's leading lawyers, Kadish also learned some valuable lessons about getting around in Vietnam.

"As a Western person, you should never, ever rent a car in Ho Chi Minh City, because traffic is sort of crazed," he said. "Simply because you are walking on a sidewalk, do not think that you will not get run over by a motorbike."

Kadish was also moved by the experience of watching a water puppet show, a traditional form of entertainment.

"I was sitting there, thinking, 'God, this is something that dates back 500 or 600 years. What right did we have to come in here in the '60s and tell them that we were afraid that they were spreading communism or something?'" Kadish said.

And Kadish liked sitting down for drinks or meals with some of the Vietnamese lawyers and getting to know them away from the more formal setting of the ABA sessions.

"At no time ever did I sense any hostility toward us as Americans," Kadish said. "Everybody wanted to talk to us. At one dinner, one of the leaders of the bar federation, after several rounds of toasts, said, 'Yeah, I got shot in the war. I got wounded. So what? That was a long time ago. That has nothing to do with my life now.'"

Life decisions

Although the Vietnamese people Kadish encountered weren't interested in talking about the war, there was something unsaid in a question Vietnamese people often asked him. "People would shyly ask me, 'So … is this your first trip to Vietnam?' " he said.

When he said it was his first visit, he was also telling them that he hadn't been there as a soldier.

Although Kadish devotes much of his career to providing legal services for people who can't afford it, he wasn't attracted to the profession by any lofty motives.

Growing up in West Orange, N.J., Kadish didn't always get the best grades in school. His family decided to teach him some values by putting him to work for his uncle, who owned a men's clothing store.

Kadish told his uncle he wanted to go into the family business.

Kadish said his uncle replied: "No, I think that you're probably pretty smart, even though you don't try. You should do something else."

Kadish looked at the customers in the shop and wondered who purchased the suits in the store.

"Doctors, lawyers and accountants. Well, I can't add or subtract, so that gets rid of accountants. I'm really frightened of needles and I don't like the sight of blood, so there's no way I could be a doctor. So, I guess I'll be a lawyer.' And that was basically it," Kadish said.

But when Kadish studied law at Rutgers University from 1965 to 1968, he found himself drawn to the causes of the civil rights movement and anti-war demonstrators. After he earned his law degree, he avoided the draft by working for a federal antipoverty program, VISTA, or Volunteers in Service to America.

"I made $45 a week and I lived in the slums of Detroit," he said.

Instead of fighting in Vietnam, Kadish provided legal counsel to poor people in Detroit. A year later, Kadish won a Reginald Heber Smith Poverty Law Fellowship and came to Chicago to do more work providing legal aid to the poor. And he never left Chicago.

Choosing pro bono

"I didn't set out to be a pro bono lawyer early in my career," he said. "It's just that I wasn't real good at collecting money, so it ended up being pro bono."

Kadish never expected to work at a big law firm, until Mayer Brown offered him a job "out of the blue" in 1999.

At the time, only about 15 U.S. law firms employed someone in charge of pro bono work.

Today, about 90 firms do, Kadish said.

"I regard the pro bono program as simply another practice area of the firm — just like litigation or finance," he said.

But one big difference is that Kadish isn't allowed to bring in any money through billable hours.

"My job is to find interesting, challenging work for all the lawyers in our firm that will benefit society and will also train them to be better lawyers, whether it's on the defense of a murder case or doing microfinance work in India or representing an inmate on a civil rights case," he said.

When Paul Breloff became an associate at Mayer Brown's Chicago office in 2006, he was already eager to do some good in the world through microfinance — securing small loans for poor people to help them lift themselves out of poverty.

Breloff told Kadish he wanted to do pro bono work in this field.

Breloff said, "He said, 'I don't know a whole lot about this, but it sounds really cool, and you're interested in it, so let's figure out how to do it.' "

Mayer Brown helped India-based SKS Microfinance to work out some deals for equity financing.

Breloff said, "They essentially came to us and said, 'We think we want to do this thing called raising equity. We have no idea how to do it. We've been floundering around for a year just trying to figure out the first step. Help us.' "

Now based in New York, Breloff works today as an independent consultant specializing in microfinance, including some consulting for Mayer Brown.

"Marc has been an incredible mentor," he said.

"He cares so much about the people he works with, not just as lawyers and not just about increasing skills. He really seems to thrive on meeting people and figuring out what are their passions and how he can play a role enabling that."

Under Kadish's leadership, Mayer Brown's lawyers have done pro bono work for the Corporation for Supportive Housing, which helps communities create permanent housing with services to prevent and end homelessness; the Alliance for Children's Rights in Los Angeles, which gives free legal services to protect the rights of impoverished and abused children; and the Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center, which gives legal help to immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

And the firm's lawyers have handled more than 30 criminal cases over the past dozen years.

"Most large law firms do not do criminal defense work the same way that we do," Kadish said.

"Some of those (cases) take up an enormous amount of time. Basically, no matter how much pro bono work is done in the United States, the legal needs of the poor are still unmet."

Kadish isn't the only one in his family working on criminal defense cases.

His wife, Suzin Farber, has been an assistant Cook County public defender for 24 years. One daughter, Amanda, 20, is a student at Pitzer College in California. This summer she is an intern at the National Immigrant Justice Center. Their younger daughter, Izzy, 18, starts her senior year at Francis W. Parker School, following a summer of studying filmmaking in New York.

Breloff said Kadish inspires other lawyers to give their time to good causes.

"He's charismatic," Breloff said. "The way he talks about work creates more of an inspirational feel around it and gets people pretty excited. … He's a bit of a showman."

Kadish's showmanship comes out whenever he plays clips from "To Kill a Mockingbird," the 1962 film based on Harper Lee's novel. Kadish used the movie as a teaching tool for evidence classes at Chicago-Kent.

He's shown clips at Mayer Brown meetings. And he used the movie again when he taught trial advocacy to law students in Cambodia three times in recent years for the ABA's Rule of Law Initiative.

"They are still living with the effects of the Khmer Rouge," Kadish said. "The Cambodians lost millions of people through their own genocide.

"They still live among the perpetrators. They are very pessimistic about justice being fulfilled."

Kadish said "To Kill a Mockingbird" demonstrated valuable lessons for aspiring lawyers in Cambodia.

It showed them what the southern United States was like in the 1930s, when jurors, judges and lawyers were all white and when black people attending a trial were required to sit in the balcony.

The students watched Gregory Peck portraying Atticus Finch, the lawyer who defends Tom Robinson, a black man charged with raping a white woman. After seeing the testimony and Finch's closing argument, most of the Cambodian students were convinced that the jury would find Robinson innocent. But no — he is found guilty.

At first, the Cambodian students reacted with shock and pessimism. The story seemed to confirm their suspicion that there's no justice in the world.

But then Kadish explained how much America has evolved since the era depicted in the film.

"African-Americans will no longer be relegated to the balcony," Kadish said he told them. "Things have changed. And we now have a black president.

"In 1930, no one would've ever thought of that at all."

And then Kadish pointed out what happens after the verdict in the movie.

"The courtroom empties," Kadish said. "It's only Atticus, the court reporter and the black people in the balcony. And as he wraps up his briefcase to walk out of the courtroom, first the black women stand, and then all of the blacks stand, as a sign of respect. My lesson always is: You don't have to do criminal defense work. There's lots of things you can do as a lawyer to assist people, to make it a more just society."

That's one lesson Kadish never tires of giving, whether it's to law students in Cambodia or young partners at Mayer Brown.

"May you have a career," he tells them, "and may you be as respected as Atticus Finch is, with these people in the audience."

This spring — when Kadish was across the border from Cambodia in Vietnam — he sensed that the country's lawyers were eager to learn as much as they could about how American lawyers practice.

And while Vietnam doesn't yet have a strong tradition of pro bono work, Kadish did see examples of lawyers devoting their time to helping people in need.

He visited a legal clinic for the poor and was amazed to learn that the woman running it was a former member of Vietnam's supreme court.

That's the sort of work Kadish encouraged lawyers in Vietnam to do, although he was cautious not to sound like he was lecturing them.

And it's also an example of what he urges American lawyers to do.

Kadish teaches at a Northwestern University seminar about large firms and pro bono work, where he talks about why lawyers should give their time.

"Can you go into a supermarket and say, 'I'd like for you to give me some pro bono food?' Can you go to a taxi driver and say, 'I want you take me some place for free?' No," Kadish said.

So why do lawyers work pro bono?

"We are the only people who can practice law," he said.

"Society has given us an exclusive license to do that. It is simply part of the obligations of an American lawyer to give back."