NEEDHAM, Mass. It’s Thursday night in this mixed-income suburb of Boston, and the sight of cars lining a quiet residential street indicates to a casual observer that there’s a cocktail party in progress in one of the town’s newer, more upscale homes. “That’s where the need is greatest,” says lawyer Bob Pliateck, as he takes care to make sure he has enough business cards in the breast pocket of his plaid sport coat. “A lot of guys will do their pro bono work in the cool comfort of their air-conditioned offices, but not me. I ‘take it to the streets,'” he says, making air quotes to indicate that he is using hip, youthful slang.
Once he’s been greeted by the hostess at the door, he begins to circulate among the guests, who are resplendent in colorful outfits that only a week before would have been viewed as “rushing the season” of spring, which in New England generally lasts only a day or two before giving way to summer. “I do most of my pro bono work at cocktail parties,” Pliateck says with a grim shake of his head at the array of potential problems he’s likely to encounter tonight. “The unmet legal needs here–house closings, estate plans–are so overwhelming it’s really a scandal the way the legal profession turns a blind eye to the problems of the upper middle class.”
Under a Massachusetts rule, lawyers in this state must provide twenty-five hours of legal aid annually to people of limited means, or pay a fee ranging from $250 to 1% of their annual taxable income to organizations that provide such services. “I could just write the check,” Pliateck says. “But that would be the easy, more expensive way out.”
So the sole practitioner walks the mean streets of leafy-green suburbs like this, looking for those more fortunate than himself who nonetheless, in traditional cheap Yankee style, refuse to pay high hourly rates for downtown Boston lawyers. “It’s my calling, the way Mother Teresa ministered to the lepers in Calcutta,” he says of his selfish quest for billable hours.
Bar officials say Pliateck’s quixotic pursuit of the slightly over-privileged puts him in compliance with the mandatory public service requirement, but just barely. “Perhaps we should re-word the Rule,” says bar counsel Everett Winthrop III. “Technically everybody south of the Bill Gates-Warren Buffett level is ‘of limited means,’ but Bob’s a lawyer–he saw a loophole and drove right through it.”
Pliateck has heard the complaint before, but says he will not be deterred by small-minded critics who he suspects are simply envious of the way he “does well by doing good.” “It’s sour grapes,” he says. “Those guys are just jealous they didn’t come up with the idea first.”