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PLN letter to editor re fees in pro bono cases published in National Law Journal 2008

National Law Journal, Jan. 1, 2008.
PLN letter to editor re fees in pro bono cases published in National Law Journal 2008

The following letter to the editor, by PLN Editor Paul Wright, was published in the National Law Journal on February 11, 2008.


Fees for pro bono cases

Re: "Fees paid in pro bono cases are contested": Davis Wright Tremaine successfully represented my publication, Prison Legal News, for more than seven years in what turned out to be the largest public records settlement in Washington state history, Prison Legal News v. Washington Department of Corrections. The firm's lawyers took the case pro bono in 2000 when every other Washington firm we had approached turned us down, and they did a fantastic job representing us. We lost at the trial court level, lost on appeal and then won, 6-3, in the state Supreme Court. Eventually, after 7 1/2 years of litigation, they received $341,000 in fees and costs.

Our magazine could never have afforded to hire counsel. Moreover, few firms could go that long without being paid when the state raised a vigorous scorched-earth defense of their illegal conduct. A key point overlooked by your article is that large attorney fee awards can and should act as a deterrent to civil rights violators. All too often the damages awards in civil rights cases (especially those involving the First Amendment) are relatively paltry, and government agencies can view them as "the cost of doing business." When civil rights violators are sued by plaintiffs represented by large corporate firms, they need to factor in the fact that they might be held liable for a large fee award if they lose, and they should settle sooner rather than later. All the whining comes from agencies that have been found to have violated the law and that vigorously defended their illegal conduct.

Paul Wright
Brattleboro, Vt.