Pro Bono

Ian Graham is the author of Unbillable Hours: A True Story, which was published earlier this month. The book is a memoir of Graham’s time at Latham & Watkins, where he spent about five years as a litigation associate.

Unbillable Hours is not, however, a Latham exposé (which I’d eagerly read, by the way). Rather, the book centers on Graham’s work on a major pro bono case. The book’s publisher describes it as follows:

Landing a job at a prestigious L.A. law firm, complete with a six figure income, signaled the beginning of the good life for Ian Graham. But the harsh reality of life as an associate quickly became evident. The work was grueling and boring, the days were impossibly long, and Graham’s main goal was to rack up billable hours.

But when he took an unpaid pro bono case to escape the drudgery, Graham found the meaning in his work that he’d been looking for. As he worked to free Mario Rocha, a gifted young Latino who had been wrongly convicted at 16 and sentenced to life without parole, the shocking contrast between the quest for money and power and Mario’s desperate struggle for freedom led Graham to look long and hard at his future as a corporate lawyer.

Yesterday I chatted with Ian Graham about his book, his time at Latham, and how he made the transition from a legal career to a writing career.

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The “pro bono year” is to Biglaw what a “study abroad program” is to most American universities: a time for reflection, exposure to new things, and a more relaxed pace.

It was a necessity born of the recession. Firms did not have enough work to go around; they didn’t want to lose perfectly good employees, but they also did not want to pay them six figures to sit in their offices, twiddling their thumbs until the economy picked back up. So, instead, they offered five-figure stipends and the requirement, in some cases, that their lawyers go off and serve the public good.

This fall, many of those lawyers are heading back to their firms (though some liked being “abroad” in the public interest sector so much that they don’t plan to go back). Skadden is still trying to decide how much worth the pro bono year, or “Sidebar Plus” in Skadden parlance, brought to its associates, and thus how much to pay them upon their return.

It seems though that Skadden is unsure about the worth of Sidebar itself. Though the firm has not officially commented on it, we understand that it is discontinuing the Sidebar Plus program, apparently because work at the firm has picked up and it wants all of its associates back at the farm, plowing the billable hour fields.

What will become of the “pro bono year” for Biglaw? When we emerge from the recession, will it be left behind? Heading into the fall, some firms are still offering the year-away option to incoming associates, including generous stipends…

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Over a year ago, Skadden announced its Sidebar Plus program. Skadden gave associates the option to take a one-year deferral, for one-third of their Skadden salary.

All indications suggest that the program was a huge success. Skadden received so many volunteers that it had to turn some people away. Skadden associates received varied and interesting experiences during their year off. And the program was heralded in the mainstream media.

Skadden associates are set to return to the firm in May. After being away from the firm for a year, what status will these returning Sidebar associates have upon their return?

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Paul Weiss logo.JPGThat’s the question essentially posed in a barn-burning op-ed piece in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, written by Debra Burlingame and Thomas Joscelyn. Burlingame is the sister of Charles Burlingame III, pilot of the American Airlines plane that was crashed at the Pentagon on September 11; Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Burlingame and Joscelyn begin their opinion piece, Gitmo’s Indefensible Lawyers, by discussing Paul Weiss partner Julia Tarver Mason (who, by the way, is rather attractive; she looks like a cross between Kristin Davis, aka Charlotte from Sex and the City, and Andie MacDowell). The WSJ op-ed writers claim that Mason improperly used “legal mail” — “privileged lawyer-client communications that are exempt from screening by security personnel” — to provide one of her clients, a detainee at Guantanamo Bay, with inflammatory propaganda from Amnesty International (a brochure, written in Arabic, depicting alleged abuse against Arabs and Muslims by Americans).
Writes one of several ATL readers who brought this article to our attention:

Wow. I didn’t know that Paul Weiss was involved in such potentially dubious acts.

But did Paul Weiss actually do anything wrong? Let’s discuss….

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Leading law firm attacked in controversial WSJ op-ed.

Career Center AboveTheLaw Lateral Link ATL.jpgDuring the past year, pro bono programs got an unexpected boost from the recession when firms like Skadden offered stipends to their deferred associates who took public interest jobs. On the flip side, associates who escaped layoffs at their firm probably felt some pressure to devote themselves to billable work to the exclusion of pro bono work.
This week, our ATL / Lateral Link survey asks about the effect of the economic downturn on the pro bono programs at your firm. We’ll use the information to update the ATL Career Center and bring you the results next week.

If you have information about your firm that you want to share with other career center users, please email us at careercenter@abovethelaw.com. Also, a reminder that we are still accepting applications for additional writers for the Career Center.

pillsbury clunker pro bono case.jpgBiglaw firms do pro bono work for all sorts of reasons: to “give back to the community,” to give associates varied legal experience, for reputational reasons, and for that warm, fuzzy feeling we all get helping those less fortunate.
Usually pro bono work makes for good press. But not always.
Pillsbury Winthrop got a good thrashing in the San Francisco Chronicle this weekend for its pro bono assistance to a man named Bob Kaufman.
Kaufman is a fan of “antique cars”… of the old and rusted variety. According to court documents, Kaufman “is addicted to acquiring vehicles. Over the last two years, he has had an average of seven cars parked on San Francisco streets at any one time.”
Kaufman violated a San Francisco parking law requiring that cars be moved every 72 hours. Two of his clunkers were confiscated. He decided to sue the city of San Francisco and the police department for taking his babies away. He met a Pillsbury attorney at a legal clinic and the firm took pity on him. From the Chronicle:

But now Kaufman has something else — Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw, a high-powered international law firm. Although the Pillsbury Web site says the local office focuses on banking, technology and real estate, currently it is helping Kaufman get two junker cars back from a tow yard.

So far, the city is out $71,320 fighting what the city attorney’s office insists is a frivolous lawsuit.

We expect the hippies in California to hate on Biglaw, but not for their pro bono efforts…

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In addition to being one of the world’s most successful law firms, Skadden is also a public-spirited one. The firm just donated $100,000 to Haiti relief efforts, for example. (More on that later.)

In addition, the firm supports public interest work through the Skadden Fellowship Program:

The Skadden Fellowship Foundation, described as “a legal Peace Corps” by The Los Angeles Times, was established in 1988 to commemorate the firm’s 40th anniversary, in recognition of the dire need for greater funding for graduating law students who wish to devote their professional lives to providing legal services to the poor (including the working poor), the elderly, the homeless and the disabled, as well as those deprived of their civil or human rights. The aim of the foundation is to give Fellows the freedom to pursue public interest work; thus, the Fellows create their own projects at public interest organizations with at least two lawyers on staff before they apply.

Fellowships are awarded for two years. Skadden provides each Fellow with a salary and pays all fringe benefits to which an employee of the sponsoring organization would be entitled. For those Fellows not covered by a law school low income protection plan, the firm will pay a Fellow’s law school debt service for the tuition part of the loan for the duration of the fellowship. The 2010 class of Fellows brings to 591 the number of academically outstanding law school graduates and judicial clerks the firm has funded to work full-time for legal and advocacy organizations.

The 2010 class of Skadden Fellows was just announced. Congratulations to the 27 winners, selected from 20 different law schools. Yale had four, Berkeley (aka Boalt Hall) had three, and Stanford and Fordham had two each.

Check out their names, law schools, and sponsoring organizations — maybe you know some of them? — after the jump.

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Haiti earthquake January 2010.jpgLarge law firms have a track record of stepping up to the plate and providing aid when major disasters strike. For example, back in spring 2008, several leading law firms made sizable donations to support China earthquake relief efforts.
Last night, a major earthquake — the worst in the region in more than 200 years, with a magnitude of at least 7.0 — struck Haiti. The death toll could climb into the hundreds of thousands. For more details and analysis, read this post by Elie over at True / Slant. (Elie has family in Haiti.)
The earthquake just happened, but law firms are already taking action. From a tipster at Paul Hastings:

Who says law firms are all bad? I’m happy to see that whatever bonus money I may miss come March is going to a good cause at least. PH donated $100,000 to earthquake relief.

Is your firm taking similar action? Feel free to let us know, in the comments. You can also make a personal donation in support of Haiti earthquake relief via Doctors Without Borders, the organization that Paul Hastings is supporting, or via the Red Cross (disclosure: ATL advertiser).
UPDATE: You can also donate $10 to the Red Cross simply by texting the word “Haiti” to the number 90999. See here.
The full Paul Hastings memo, after the jump.

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2009 Associate bonus watch above the law.JPGHere’s a bit of surprising good news, from a source at Simpson Thacher:

Thought that STB should get its props for the (completely unexpected) notice that those on the public service fellowships will receive a pro-rated portion of the bonus that their individual class years received. Not bad, considering that normally not being employed at the firm by bonus day means no bonus.

This does seem like a pleasant surprise — especially since we now know that Simpson initially didn’t budget for bonuses for younger classes. We looked back at the terms of the public interest fellowship program at Simpson for mention of prorated bonuses for participating associates, and we found none.

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Sullivan Cromwell LLP new logo Sullcrom.jpgMore than a decade ago, Cory Maples of Alabama murdered two people. After an evening of heavy drinking, playing pool, and riding around in a friend’s car, Maples killed two friends, shooting them execution-style.

According to court documents, he signed a confession, “stating that he: (1) shot both victims around midnight; (2) had drunk six or seven beers by about 8 p.m., but ‘didn’t feel very drunk'; and (3) did not know why he decided to kill the two men. Faced with this confession, Maples’s trial attorneys argued that Maples was guilty of murder, but not capital murder.”

A jury found Maples guilty and sentenced him to death.

Maples appealed his capital murder conviction with the help of attorneys at Sullivan & Cromwell:

Maples subsequently filed a petition for post-conviction relief pursuant to Alabama Rule of Criminal Procedure 32, claiming, inter alia, that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to investigate or present evidence of: (1) Maples’s mental health history; (2) his intoxication at the time of the crime; and (3) his alcohol and drug history.

The trial court dismissed Maples’ Rule 32 petition, and sent notice of the decision to the attorneys at Sullivan & Cromwell and to local Alabama counsel. There was a 42-day period for filing a notice of appeal, but all the lawyers involved dropped the ball on the case, PepsiCo-style.

So what’s the explanation for S&C’s missing the deadline for filing an appeal?

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Leading law firm blows deadline in death penalty case.

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