Pro Bono

Last year, we covered a mistake made in a death penalty case by the white-shoe firm of Sullivan & Cromwell. It was a noteworthy development because of the rarity of the occurrence — S&C doesn’t often make mistakes, at least not ones as elementary as missing a deadline — and because of the stakes involved.

Well, the stakes are getting higher: S&C is now seeking SC review. The firm wants the Supreme Court to step in and essentially forgive the firm’s error in missing the deadline to file an appeal. Adam Liptak tells the tale, in the New York Times:

Sullivan & Cromwell is a law firm with glittering offices in a dozen cities around the world, and some of its partners charge more than $1,000 an hour. The firm’s paying clients, at least, demand impeccable work.

Cory R. Maples, a death row inmate in Alabama, must have been grateful when lawyers from the firm agreed to represent him without charge. But the assistance he got may turn out to be lethal.

Please note: that last sentence originally appeared in the august pages of the Times. Despite its tabloid tone — we can imagine an announcer for Inside Edition intoning darkly, “the assistance he got may turn out to be lethal” — it did not appear first in Above the Law. [FN1]

So how did S&C put a man’s life in jeopardy? Let’s descend into the mailroom at 125 Broad Street….

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You know the drill when it comes to nonprofit fundraisers: hour-long open bar, followed by an excruciatingly long sit-down dinner. Like hamsters, you are rewarded for sitting through each speech with another course served. Once you’ve finished dessert, you hope for a video or slideshow, so the lights are dimmed and you can slip out unobserved.

Some fundraisers are more fun than others, of course — especially if there’s a photo booth with viking hats, or dueling lawyer rock bands (as there will be at the Black Cat in D.C. tonight). But generally these events are rather staid affairs.

LA-based legal services organization Bet Tzedek wanted to shake that formula up. Thirteen years ago, it launched The Justice Ball. Its founders were “sick of black tie and rubber chicken,” says the organization’s president/CEO Mitchell Kamin, and hoped to attract the young professional set instead of just geriatric philanthropists.

Over 2,500 people are expected to attend this year’s ball on Saturday night, featuring music by Dave Navarro and DJ Skribble, a Guitar Hero battle, legal tattoos, and a J-Date sponsored speed dating session. Since I’m in L.A. after attending Loyola’s Journalist Law School (and a historic taping of Jimmy Kimmel Live), I’ll be in attendance Saturday night too, thanks to comp tickets from Bet Tzedek. I look forward to spotting many summer associates there. Sidley, Skadden, Latham & Watkins, and O’Melveny & Myers are among the many firms that put the Justice Ball on their summer associate events calendars.

I interviewed Kamin about what to expect Saturday, whether tickets are still available (they are), and how he has transformed the LA County legal services firm into an award-winning national network.

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Have you been waiting for a megafirm to take a stand in the Arizona immigration law mess? Biglaw has already been all up in the BP oil spill disaster. Why not weigh in on behalf of Arizona, or take the side of racially-profiled, dark-skinned people?

One Biglaw firm is ready to get into this. Dewey & LeBoeuf has filed an amicus brief on behalf of….

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Career Center AboveTheLaw Lateral Link ATL.jpgWelcome to the next post in our series on the results of the 2010 ATL/Career Center Associate Satisfaction survey. We’ve used the survey results to revamp the Career Center, powered by Lateral Link, with completely updated profiles, and we are highlighting insider information that Members shared about their firms in the eight key areas of associate satisfaction covered by the Career Center.

Today, it’s about doing good for everyone: PRO BONO.

  • This firm’s significant commitment to pro bono includes its “rotation” or “loaned associate” program, which allows associates to spend six months working full time for a poverty law or public interest organization.   
  • An impressively high 97% of associates at this Chicago-based firm perform an average of 111 pro bono hours each annually. 
  • Pro bono work has grown along with headcount at this ever-expanding firm – headcount has increased from 225 lawyers in 1995 to approximately 1,100 attorneys today, and the firm’s pro bono hours per attorney have nearly doubled since 2003 to 74 hours annually per associate.
  • An "unlimited" number of pro bono hours are counted towards billable hours at this firm, and some Members reported billing as much as 400-500 pro bono hours in 2009.

Additional pro bono highlights, after the jump.

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A few weeks ago, we reported on how Dewey & LeBoeuf was being less than enthusiastic in welcoming back to the firm some participants in DL Pursuits, its year-long sabbatical program.

Dewey might not be alone in treating its returnees in this way. Simpson Thacher — widely regarded as having invented the public interest fellowship as an innovative way of dealing with the downturn, and praised for doing so — appears to be taking a similar approach. A source reports:

Simpson, creator of the public interest year, is reneging on its “guaranteed return” promise. Multiple corporate and satellite office associates who indicated interest in the return option were told either that there might not be capacity, or just outright that there isn’t a place for them. From the firm that “invented” and still spins this program as public service, that’s disappointing.

The number of public interest fellows who aren’t being invited back to the firm is not known. We don’t believe it’s a huge number — somewhere in the single digits. (If you have information, please email us.)

We reached out to Simpson for comment. The firm has a somewhat different characterization of what’s going on here….

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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 [email protected]. Also, a reminder that we are still accepting applications for additional writers for the Career Center.

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