Pro Bono Makes A Difference In Afghanistan, Liberia And Atlanta

Friday, August 1, 2008 - 01:00

Editor: I understand you were in academia before embarking on a career in law.

Hoffmann : When I was in college, I never thought that I would be a lawyer. I enjoyed my philosophy classes, went on to get my Ph.D. and became a professor of philosophy at Ithaca College. While teaching, I became interested in the philosophy of law and began auditing classes at Cornell Law School. In addition to needing a more stable way of earning an income, I began to see law as inherently interesting: I realized that the same kind of analysis that I applied to philosophical issues could be applied to legal issues. I went to law school and never looked back.

Editor: Congratulations on your new title as Pro Bono Partner. What inspired King & Spalding to make this a full time position?

Hoffmann : In part, we are simply growing too rapidly to continue managing pro bono on a part-time basis. More importantly, the firm has had a long tradition of pro bono work, dating back at least to the 1950s, when Georgia was faced with desegregating the public schools, and King & Spalding partner James Sibley headed the Sibley Commission, which created a model that would help Georgia transition into an integrated public school system. The pro bono tradition has since been embodied by lawyers such as Griffin Bell and Byron Attridge. The firm was smaller then, and pro bono work was conducted on a case-by-case basis. But now that we have grown to 12 offices around the globe, managing pro bono has become a full-time job.

As for the position, I have long been handling pro bono issues for the firm part-time. After practicing here for 23 years, I was at a crossroads in my career: did I want to go out and try to develop more paying business at age 62, or did I want to take a different direction? I put in a proposal, and the policy committee here readily decided it was time for someone to take on pro bono work full-time. It worked out perfectly.

I believe pro bono is becoming more and more important among young attorneys in law firms: on the one hand they want to be able to pay back their law school loans, which makes it difficult for them to work for pro bono legal services organizations, but on the other hand they want to be able to make a contribution. I must also give credit to Esther Lardent, the executive director of the Pro Bono Institute at Georgetown University, who has been a force of nature in raising the level of pro bono awareness among law firms and in-house legal departments.

Editor: Specifically, what will be your duties as Pro Bono Partner?

Hoffmann : First of all, I am now able to take on more cases myself, and I am also able to really administer our pro bono work. I feel that I am running a mini law firm of sorts.

In addition, I now have the time to develop different types of pro bono cases and to make contacts with the referral sources for them. For instance, I am very interested in international human rights, and I am now reaching out to get more of that kind of work. New projects that we have already developed in the Atlanta office this year include a criminal appeals project in the Atlanta office and a habeas corpus project.

Editor: How will you evaluate the results of these efforts?

Hoffmann: We have retained a consultant to assist us with this, and we are going to develop a strategic plan. One of the things the plan will look at is how we should measure success and what the metrics ought to be.

On a less formal basis, we consider both development and recruitment of attorneys when choosing pro bono matters. What kind of experience will it be for our associates? Will it give them a good training experience that will translate into their regular practice? In addition, we look for work that is sufficiently interesting to attract law school graduates, which will assist us in hiring the best and brightest.

Over and above a cost benefit analysis is the general obligation the bar has to provide services to people who cannot afford them. That has been a tradition of this profession long before I started practicing law; it is codified in the standards of ethics for each state bar. The benefits to the community and to the individual lives that we touch with our pro bono work are very difficult to measure by any metric but are nonetheless very important.

Editor: To what extent does King & Spalding partner with pro bono organizations?

Hoffmann : As much as we possibly can. To be successful in pro bono, it's best to partner with a legal services organization. Occasionally we will take the odd "friend of a friend" case, but I would say at least 90 percent of our cases come from pro bono organizations, which are in a better position both to screen cases and to provide expertise in particular areas so they can help train our associates.

The Georgia Asylum and Immigration Network ("GAIN"), with whom we partner, offers a seminar every year on the basics of how to try an asylum case. Our lawyers may never have taken immigration law in law school. I certainly didn't. However, I took the training session that GAIN offers, and I try asylum cases today. Incidentally, we have recently donated office space to GAIN in our building in Atlanta.

Likewise, the Southern Center for Human Rights conducts a training seminar on litigating a prisoner's rights case under section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act. Prisoners' rights and prison reform, death penalty and habeas corpus cases are among the most popular types of pro bono cases for our associates, because of the challenges they present.

Editor: I understand that you have also represented asylum seekers from Afghanistan and the African continent. Would you share with our readers how you were able to help?

Hoffmann: Perhaps, my favorite pro bono case is my asylum case on behalf of a young man named Hossain Hossaini, who hails from a small town 25 kilometers north of Kabul. He is a Shiite Tajik, and people of Tajik ethnicity and people who are Shiites are subject to persecution by the Taliban who are Pashtuns by ethnicity and Sunni by religion. That really is at the bottom of Hossain's case. When Hossain was two days old, his mother was killed when a Soviet bomb hit his house. He was actually being held in his mother's arms at the time, and Hossain still has a piece of shrapnel from the bomb in his skull.

With his father and sister, he fled to Iran, where he went to school and became a highly skilled carpet weaver and repairer. Every three years he went back to Afghanistan to renew his travel papers. At 12 years old, he went back to his village with his father and his sister. By this time the Taliban was in control. They raided his Tajik village, killed all the elders of the village including his father and kidnapped his sister (whom he has not seen since and presumes to be dead). One of the survivors took him back to Iran, where he worked until he was about 17. Following 9/11, Iran expelled all Afghans, and Hossain moved back to his village and farmed his family's land. Unable to tolerate living in constant fear of the Taliban, after a year, Hossain sold the farm and bought false travel documents. He flew to Los Angeles, where he surrendered to immigration authorities and confessed to possession of false documents. He was charged with felonies for his crimes contrary to UN protocols, which require that refugees be given a chance to apply for asylum before being charged with crimes.

Nevertheless, authorities charged him and Hossain pled guilty. After being transferred throughout the federal prison system for two years and a day, he ended up in Georgia and was released to the custody of Homeland Security. Hossain went before a judge to apply for asylum, and a Catholic Charities lawyer referred the case to me. After a number of fairly complicated procedural issues were resolved, I tried the case in November of last year. The judge granted Hossain a withholding of removal but denied him asylum on the grounds that he was an aggravated felon by virtue of pleading guilty to the identity theft offenses. I appealed the denial of asylum to the Board of Immigration Appeals, which reversed the decision. I am pressing the Immigration Court now to issue the asylum order. In the meantime, Hossain is working with great skill and success at an oriental rug shop that I can see from my building about five blocks away. He is 21 years old now, and in June he sent me a Father's Day card.

Editor: Can you tell us about your work on the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission?

Hoffmann : Recently, I spoke about our work in Liberia at a forum for the Chief Justice of the Liberian Supreme Court at Emory University, which was attended by representatives from the World Bank, the Carter Center, Lawyers Without Borders and others. We work with a group called Advocates for Human Rights, which is associated with the University of Minnesota Law School. Oddly enough, Minneapolis and Atlanta have two of the largest Liberian communities in the United States. The Advocates established a program for American lawyers to take statements from Liberian refugees who had been victimized by the civil war and by the rule of Charles Taylor to be used by the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This was the first time a Truth and Reconciliation Commission ("TRC") interviewed victims no longer living in their country. We sponsored a training program here at the firm and trained other law firms in this as well. We hosted a reception dinner for the chairman of the Liberian TRC, Jerome Verdier.

We completed a legal research project for the Liberian TRC in which we outlined the basic structure and operations of the ad hoc criminal tribunals in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, Cambodia and East Timor; analyzed their strengths and weaknesses; envisioned what would be useful to the Liberian TRC and how it wants to proceed; and prepared definitions of international crime under various international and humanitarian criminal laws, such as the Rome Statute, domestic prosecutions in the United States under federal criminal law and international law and the Torture Victims Protection Act. We have also looked into the possibility of using regional legal systems like the African Union to assist the Liberian TRC, and we hope this will prove useful to the commission.

We have also done some work for the government of Liberia itself, analyzing case law under the Liberian constitution so judges and practitioners will have a guidebook to Liberian constitutional issues. Finally, we have been asked to represent a witness who is testifying against Charles Taylor in the Special Court for Sierra Leone. One of our Washington lawyers, a former U.S. attorney, may take that case. Liberian president Ellen Sirleaf Johnson was in Atlanta recently, and I got a chance to meet her only for a second at a reception, but I did hear her speak and she is very impressive.

Editor: Do you think you will be concentrating your pro bono efforts primarily on international humanitarian type matters or will that vary depending on where you see the need?

Hoffmann : All of the above. Many of us at the firm are interested in international humanitarian work, but that does not mean we will not help a woman in southwest Atlanta who is being evicted because she would not pay the rent when the landlord refused to make essential repairs. We try not to have a one-size-fits-all mentality. I have told our summer associates that if they come here as lawyers with an interest in a particular issue, then we will do our best to accommodate them. We have already developed one new program that a first-year associate brought to us, which is to help the local public defender's office handle some criminal appeals. We hadn't really done much of this work in the past, but we are now expanding that work to another public defender's office on the other side of the metropolitan Atlanta area and it's a fluid situation. We want to do work our lawyers can get excited about and at the same time help people who need it, whether they be in Atlanta, Liberia or Rwanda.

Editor: Where would you like to see King & Spalding's pro bono programs in, say, five years?

Hoffmann : I would certainly like to do more impact litigation, litigation that affects more people and resolves an issue so that it need not be litigated over and over again. Those cases are not easy to get. I would like to increase the number of hours that we devote to pro bono. I would like to get some of the offices that have been less active to be more active. In terms of the types of things we are doing and the quality of work, if in five years we are doing more of it and we are getting more people excited about it, then I will be very happy.

Please email the interviewee at bhoffmann@kslaw.com with questions about this interview.