I’m a huge podcast fan. I recently listened to an episode titled “how to do the most good”¹, which got me thinking about how and why we, as lawyers, practice law. The podcast had nothing to do with law – it was about optimizing the impact of charitable funds. The podcast’s initial suggestion about “how to do the most good” was surprisingly technical. On a purely mathematical level, the episode suggested that distributing treated mosquito nets in areas where malaria is endemic has the most positive impact per dollar – on average it takes only $5000 to save a life.
Not so fast though. The podcast’s subsequent discussion was weirdly esoteric. The episode introduced the theory of effective altruism, which requires considering the long-term impact that doing something today could have for the indefinite future. Effective altruism posits that investing money in technologies that have (yet unrealized) potential to benefit the world in the future may actually be “more good” than, for example, distributing mosquito nets, because of the sheer number of future people (and other living things) who may benefit from such technologies.
According to this theory, investing in uncertain, but potentially impactful, technology provides more overall “good” per dollar spent.The podcast got me thinking about how lawyers can do the “most good” in their legal practices.
In order to have the greatest possible positive impact, should lawyers work to solve disputes that require an immediate solution for an individual, (for example, help a refugee defend an asylum claim,) or should lawyers take an approach that accords with effective altruism to work towards a larger but more uncertain goal? (Ruth Bader Ginsburg took this approach - she famously brought cases on behalf of male plaintiffs with the goal of advancing women’s rights.) Is it “more good” to try and settle all your cases so that you can serve more clients and help resolve more disputes, (a common personal injury lawyer’s strategy,) or should lawyers spend more time on each matter to ensure that that each case is resolved in a way that accords with what strict justice requires, (an approach commonly seen in criminal cases)?
There isn’t a right or wrong answer to these questions. Just like balancing traditional charitable giving and effective altruism, functioning democratic societies need lawyers that take each of these approaches. Resolving current disputes between parties, whether by trial or settlement, not only helps individuals but also discourages people from taking the law into their own hands and ensures a functioning system of non-violent dispute resolution.
Lawyers who use the courts to drive legislative and policy changes have the potential but are by no means guaranteed, to create lasting, and meaningful societal progress. This approach is critical to keeping the justice system relevant and maintaining its legitimacy.
Lawyers working in each of these ways contribute to maintaining our democracy and enrich the social fabric of society. However you choose to practice law, Alexi is here to help you do “more good”, more efficiently.