By Kevin Penton for Law360.com
For Shook Hardy & Bacon LLP’s Scot Fishman, developing a pro bono program is first and foremost about ensuring that a law firm is making a positive impact on the nation’s justice gap.
But achieving that positive impact isn’t done just by throwing lawyers at a problem, but through ensuring that the strengths and knowledge of those attorneys match up with the issues being tackled, said Fishman, director of Shook Hardy’s pro bono program.
As he and other pro bono leaders look back at 2022 and evaluate how to tailor their efforts for 2023, Fishman said it’s important to be mindful of connecting a community’s needs with what engages a firm’s attorneys.
When Fishman took over Shook Hardy’s program in August 2021, it worked in pro bono areas such as family law, transgender name changes, immigration and civil rights, he said. Since then, the program has doubled down on its immigration work and offered attorneys the opportunity to also work on matters such as veterans appeals, domestic violence protective orders and small business transactional work.
For 2022, Shook Hardy is anticipating a 25% increase in the average number of pro bono hours per lawyer compared to 2021 and at least a 55% increase in the number of lawyers doing at least 20 pro bono hours per year, Fishman said. That reflects a greater level of engagement among the firm’s lawyers in the program and the potential for further growth in 2023, he said.
“Maybe that’s their passion, and they just didn’t know that that was an option to use for pro bono,” Fishman said, referring to domestic violence case work as an example. “And it addresses a need that a community has. That’s a win-win.”
Anthony Perez Cassino, pro bono counsel in Milbank LLP‘s New York office and a member of the firm’s pro bono team for more than 20 years, said he expects 2023 will see a continuation of a push by many firms to rebuild their cultures after the disruptions prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
That rebuilding effort extends to the area of pro bono work, where Milbank is preparing both for larger cases already lined up on court dockets and legal efforts where lawyers may need to jump on at a moment’s notice, as well as for smaller matters such as housing evictions that the firm can anticipate and budget time and resources for, he said.
“I’m looking to connect with everybody and ensure that the [pro bono] culture is strong,” said Perez Cassino, who would like to see the firm’s participatory level in pro bono work go above an average of 20 hours annually.
In 2022, approximately 70 attorneys at Susman Godfrey LLP worked on pro bono matters, logging thousands of hours assisting clients, said Rohit Nath, a partner at the firm who works closely with its pro bono program.
“When someone at our firm sees a way to give back, they proactively do that,” Nath said. “We’re not using pro bono as a marketing tool; it’s not a way to get associates experience. We see it as a high priority and as a way for us to leverage our skills to do good.”
Nath was part of a team that, during the pandemic, worked on several cases in California successfully representing tenant advocacy groups fighting against the end of eviction moratoriums in locales such as Los Angeles, San Diego County and Alameda County. Some of the litigation is still at the appeal stage, leaving more pro bono work in 2023 for Nath and others to perform, he said.
“The next year we’re going to dedicate a lot of time to defending those victories and ensure that these eviction moratoria stand,” Nath said.
One of Greenberg Traurig LLP’s priorities for its global pro bono program that will continue for 2023 is to take on larger capacity refugee issues as they emerge, said Caroline Heller, a shareholder with the firm and the program’s chair.
For example, after the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021, Greenberg Traurig mobilized attorneys to file hundreds of humanitarian parole applications. And in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it has worked on more than 100 cases involving Ukrainians seeking entry into and work authorization in the United States, she said.
Greenberg Traurig’s pro bono program in 2023 will also prioritize assisting children with special needs, supporting families experiencing crises through its work in family courts, helping veterans looking to upgrade their discharges, assisting the LGBTQ community with a range of legal matters and working on criminal justice issues involving those who were wrongfully incarcerated, Heller said.
“At the end of the day, it’s really about how we can best use our resources to improve our communities and give back,” Heller said. “All of us have had experiences in our lives where someone has helped us in a time of need. Using your law license to help others is a special thing.”