Proskauer Rose's National Pro Bono Initiative Takes Hold

Friday, August 1, 2008 - 00:00

Editor: It has been a year since we last spoke. Would you tell us something about the establishment of Proskauer Rose's national Pro Bono Initiative (PBI) and what the Initiative has accomplished over the past year?

Harshbarger : Overall, the Initiative has become the key to ensuring that the Pro Bono Practice is fully integrated into the firm. At the request of our Chairman, Allen Fagin, the firm has made a major commitment to this initiative and under his leadership, our program has experienced a period of significant growth in the last year.

One element of this is the expansion of existing projects and our efforts to bring new, exciting opportunities for pro bono work to our attorneys. Specifically, we are proud of several signature "team" projects including the Iraqi Human Rights Project, led by Eric Blinderman, where our attorneys assist Iraqi nationals, who are under threat because of their work with the U.S. to find sanctuary in the U.S. or other countries, and the Election Protection Project, led by Jennifer Scullion, which allows our attorneys to become involved in both pre-election matters, such as revising election manuals, as well as addressing voter issues on election day. In addition to these projects, our LA office and others assisted in two national matters of great impact, writing an amicus brief to the Supreme Court on behalf of children's public health groups in a DC Gun Control case, and drafting and filing the Same Sex Marriage Amicus in the landmark California case. We also added to our externship program, with an extern now in the Brooklyn DA's office as well as that of the Corporation Counsel in New York.

Another major factor in the advancement of our program is the firm-wide Pro Bono Committee, which is now a working Practice Group with an infrastructure and a budget, and our Pro Bono Practice Group, which includes Stacey O'Haire Fahey, our firm-wide pro bono counsel, and Lynsey Hawkins, our pro bono coordinator. We have also published our first hard-cover Pro Bono Review - Breakthrough - detailing our projects, cases and partnerships at the national and local office level. On a firm-wide level, we formally integrated our summer and first-year programs into the Pro Bono Initiative, tied our pro bono practice with the firm's charitable giving program, and linked the pro bono program with the firm's diversity initiative. We have also made strides in recognizing superior participation by partners and associates in the PBI with Golden Gavel Awards, which last year were presented to 13 individuals and two teams across the firm.

Editor: Please tell us about the priorities of the firm's pro bono program for the coming year.

Harshbarger : Our overarching priority is to continue to demonstrate our commitment, as a major international law firm, to "doing well by doing good." To be more specific, first we want to continue to develop strong local partnerships with our legal service referral organizations including Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Legal Aid, NYLAG, NYLPI, Neighborhood Defender, and VLA in New York; the ACLU, Middlesex DA, and Greater Boston Legal Services in Boston; Legal Aid Society in Newark; Unity Health and the DC Bar Justice Project in Washington DC; and MALDEF in Los Angeles. We would also like to develop more signature, impact projects in the areas that are of import to our attorneys and communities, such as urban justice, entrepreneurship, children's rights, and domestic violence. As part of this initiative, we are also exploring how we can best develop partnering arrangements - with community and non-profit organizations - to help people faced with foreclosure and displacement. Second, we are very pleased that we have increased, and will continue to expand, our pro bono work to include our Paris and London offices, as well as our new Chicago office. Third, we will continue to develop the breadth of participation within the firm across all disciplines and practice areas and at all levels of experience. Finally, we want to support the efforts of the Pro Bono Institute to maximize the impact of law firm pro bono resources in the arena of public policy, reform, development, and advocacy, in addition to litigation.

Editor: You have described a national program. How do the firm's individual offices fit into this?

Harshbarger : All of our offices are central to, and pivotal in, our effectiveness and success. While we must have our national staff to ensure consistency, uniformity, and accountability in policies, procedures, and their implementation, our largest projects - those involving the election protection, veterans, and the Iraq war - are all national in scope, but local in terms of success. And, conversely, our best local projects offer us potential for leveraging them nationally. Our "grassroots up" approach allows significant involvement and leadership by associates in the partnership policies, charitable allocations, and training and development. We select our national committee members from all levels of our office and departmental ranks.

Editor: Would you share with us some of the success stories of the program during the past year?

Harshbarger : Earlier, I mentioned the Iraqi Human Rights Project. This endeavor is meant to help Iraqis, who are under threat because of their work with the U.S., obtain visas. We have had success in a number of individual cases, and we are attempting to use the momentum we have achieved to force policy in this area to be addressed.

I mentioned partnering with other organizations. One of the most successful - and perhaps a model for future partnering efforts - is with MALDEF, The Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. We have found that we have maximum impact if we work through organizations that are themselves very effective in the communities where we have a presence.

Teams of our attorneys have worked on hundreds of matters that span a range of personal and political issues. We offer personal planning assistance to people in need of wills, immigration as well as political asylum representation to those in need, and aid to the disabled and veterans. Projects are in place working with the homeless, the incarcerated, the impoverished, and community youth. We view these matters as a success as they exemplify what we hope to achieve through our Pro Bono Initiative: attorneys, working as a team, to make a real difference for individuals, the community, and the world.

Editor: When I was in practice, it always seemed that there were plenty of pro bono opportunities for litigators, less so for corporate and transactional lawyers. How has Proskauer addressed this issue?

Harshbarger : It continues to be a challenge. One of our goals - and we have passed this charge on to all of our practice groups - is to ensure that we provide pro bono opportunities for all of our attorneys, irrespective of their areas of practice. Some of these opportunities develop across departmental lines, and some of our projects are really joint diversity-pro bono undertakings.

The issue of how to ensure a flow of pro bono work to everyone in the firm is not unique to Proskauer. I am working with the Pro Bono Institute in Washington on a number of pro bono issues, including how to maximize the firm's pro bono impact, how to get everyone involved and how to implement a sustainable best practices standard in the pro bono arena. Our Iraqi Human Rights Project is interdisciplinary, as is our Holocaust Project, which involves Holocaust survivors in many of the cities where the firm has a presence. Our partnership with the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship involves passing on corporate start-up skills to a variety of urban entrepreneurs, and the thought is that the injection of these skills into communities that have not seen much prosperity is a step toward bringing them into a better economic climate. All of these undertakings include opportunities for corporate and transactional lawyers as well as litigators, and I have been very pleased with the response they have generated among lawyers from that side of the firm's practice. The more opportunities we offer these lawyers to develop their professional skills, the easier it is going to be to recruit them for our projects.

Editor: To what extent has the firm's pro bono program influenced its recruiting of law school graduates and lateral hires?

Harshbarger : I think our pro bono program has a very strong impact on our ability to attract good summer associates as well as first year associates. Lateral hires are also very interested in the pro bono opportunities the firm offers. One of the most important recruiting tools that we have developed recently is the Breakthrough report I described earlier. A strong pro bono program tells a recent law school graduate something about the values that a firm espouses, and we find that most of them - certainly the ones we would like to hire - want to work with people who hold such values. They go to the trouble of finding out about a firm's pro bono activities, and they very often judge a workplace environment in terms of a firm's pro bono commitment. For those who wish to join a major law firm practice, there are legitimate questions. Am I going to be able to develop the requisite skills? Am I going to be engaged in complex litigation and transactional projects? Am I going to have access to development opportunities? And also, is this a firm that will permit me to use my skills to make a contribution on behalf of someone who might not otherwise be able to act on his own behalf? Am I going to have a chance to feel good about what I am doing?

Editor: What are the rewards of pro bono service for the firm's attorneys and the firm overall?

Harshbarger : There is a very strong business case to be made. A strong pro bono program is vital to recruitment, as I have indicated, but it is also essential for training associates and for maintaining their morale over the long term. Within the firm, we include pro bono in the associate and partner review process, and we recognize singular achievements now through our annual Golden Gavel and Book Awards. For everyone connected with it, pro bono work provides great satisfaction in the midst of a very demanding professional life. In difficult economic times, there is always a concern about the bottom line. The message that we have been entrusted to convey, to the firm and to the world at large, is that this work serves to sustain the firm, enhance its reputation and standing among the communities in which it lives and the clients it serves, and, finally, that it is the right thing to do.

Please email the interviewee at sharshbarger@proskauer.com with questions about this interview.