Pro Bono Is Part Of Our Heritage

Friday, August 1, 2008 - 01:00

Editor: Andy, you are well known in Philadelphia and elsewhere as an exponent of pro bono and have recently been involved as counsel in an immigration case. Please tell our readers about the case.

Chirls: I have been working with our associates on a series of immigration cases, most of which are referred by HIAS and Council Migration Services of Philadelphia. Our most recent success was in helping a woman from El Salvador. She was living with a gang member; gang members are notorious for taking over whole sections of cities in El Salvador and other parts of Central America. When she tried to leave this man, who is the father of her children, the gang leader threatened to kill her and the children. She went to the domestic abuse authorities, who were unable to handle her case, and, in fact, notified her husband in advance of the trial date and before the subpoena was served, which put her in even more danger. She managed to leave the country, and by way of Mexico crossed into Texas, and then made her way to Pennsylvania, where she worked at a clothing factory and applied for asylum. We tried to persuade the immigration authorities that she was a member of a social group that suffered from a well-founded fear of persecution, but initially the immigration authori- ties opposed granting asylum. After a two and a half-hour interview and after waiting four months, she was granted asylum. While she is much safer, she continues to get threats from El Salvador on her cell phone. The children are in hiding, and now she will be able to make an application to sponsor them as immigrants.

Previously, we handled the case of a Peruvian who was fired from his job and abused by police because he was homosexual. He worked on a cruise ship and jumped ship while it was docked in the U.S. We overcame the immigration authorities' view that he could avoid persecution in Peru by moving to a small town rather than living in the city. We produced evidence that showed that the persecution was just as bad in small towns - in fact worse - and convinced the immigration authorities to grant him asylum.

Now we are representing a Haitian journalist seeking asylum who has suffered threats from a death squad that is tied to one of the factions that gets control of the government every couple of years.

Editor: In reading your biography I am struck by the numerous ways you have served your community as well as society's underserved. Please tell us first about the ways in which you have served the Philadelphia Bar Association.

Chirls: I was Chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association in 2005, a bar association with 13,000 members. The bar association promotes the public service work and pro bono work that our lawyers do. This involves fundraising through the Philadelphia Bar Foundation for pro bono agencies. My focus in 2005 was to narrow the gap between Philadelphia immigrant communities and the legal system. We did this by promoting the professionalism and certification of translators and by making available forms by which complaints could be filed for processing simple cases in languages other than English. For instance, protection from abuse orders are now available in Philadelphia in about fifteen languages. Somebody who has been ordered not to abuse a spouse can no longer say, "I didn't understand the order; it was in English and I only speak Burmese." Now we can serve that order in Burmese and the person is on notice that there are sanctions for continuing to commit abuse.

Similarly, you might have a landlord-tenant case which is largely done by form pleading, where you fill in dollar amounts and addresses and names. Landlords or tenants who have disputes know that they can go to the municipal court and have their cases mediated and processed to some degree in a foreign language - in Spanish and about five Asian languages. Such a process promotes stability, the rule of law and the ability to handle money issues in a court rather then by self-help.

We also had clinics in Polish. Around 150 people who needed information about their legal rights, got guidance directly from Polish-speaking lawyers or got referrals to lawyers who speak Polish. We have institutionalized efforts to make Philadelphia's legal system hospitable and available to immigrant communities.

We have also arranged for tax credit assistance for migrant workers to be available in a few languages. When people who are working for a minimum wage learn that there is a tax credit available, they are jubilant.

Editor: Please also tell our readers about your service on the board and as chairman of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations. What is the mission of this organization? What are some of its accomplishments?

Chirls: I was the chair of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations for a short period in 1995-96. I worked on the establishment of non-discrimination practices in Philadelphia and on a housing testing program that was a pioneer in housing discrimination in Philadelphia. Also, I was one of the authors of the Mayor's Report of Services to the Latino Community, the primary recommendation of which was adopted 12 years later. It shows that if you are persistent, you can get reforms. I have worked with the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, the oldest and largest national gay rights legal organization. We worked on impact litigation involving the military, employment discrimination and governmental discrimination throughout the country. I presented the first case of AIDS discrimination for the plaintiff ever to be presented to a jury in Pennsylvania. The immigration cases I have done recently are very rewarding, but they don't change the world in an institutional way as does impact litigation such as Lambda. Both types of cases, whether changing society by impact institutional litigation or one case at a time, reflect the ways in which lawyers can affect society.

Editor: WolfBlock has a long history of philanthropic and pro bono service. Tell us about some of the work you do in Philadelphia.

Karetnick: We do everything from incorporating and helping start-up businesses in depressed areas that are being revitalized to helping people obtain 501(c)(3) status for their businesses - everything from transactional to litigation to appellate work .

Chirls: This is part of our institutional history . We have had death penalty cases. We have been board members of major organizations that historically identify with us, such as Jewish Employment and Vocational Services, JEVS, and many arts organizations. Just to give you a sense of what we are doing now, we have a series of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act cases. We often partner with the nonprofit Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia and other organizations seeking counsel to support their litigation efforts.

Editor: When did the firm embark on doing pro bono work?

Chirls: It is as old as the firm itself. Personally, I cherish my work with our recently deceased partner, Frank Poul, who, during the McCarthy era, worked on upsetting the requirement of loyalty oaths for teachers in Pennsylvania. He was part of defending a prosecution of 19 members of the Communist Party in Pennsylvania. He and 19 other lawyers trundled down to federal court and defended them in a jury trial in what is considered one of the great collective acts of the Philadelphia Bar.

Karetnick : Historically, WolfBlock has been involved in the community, both through direct service and legal representation and other ways - board participation, fundraising, advisory positions. That culture has persisted over the years and trickled down. We have a lot of associates and partners who are involved in pro bono work and actively seek out board positions on nonprofits.

Editor: Aliza, do you work full-time on pro bono projects? How is the pro bono activity within the firm organized? How does the firm measure its value?

Karetnick: No, not at all. I have a full and varied case load. Right now our pro bono efforts are loosely organized. We have a number of sources of pro bono referrals from various nonprofits. We disseminate that information to our attorneys. Attorneys are free at just about any level to take on a pro bono case, a transaction, a project - whatever interests them. They have to submit for approval the particular case or transaction, and if it satisfies the ABA definition of pro bono, or if I determine that it has merit in the community, then I approve it, and the attorney is free to pursue the matter.

Editor: Do you encourage your lawyers to perform pro bono service for a certain number of hours?

Karetnick : We don't have a set number of hours. We encourage everyone to participate. Cases and transactions can take 10 hours or 300. Just to give you an example, there was an associate in our litigation department who took on an IDEA case two years ago. We firmly believed based on our discussions with the client, that the case would resolve in 10 to 20 hours of legal work. It should have gone to settlement promptly. The case settled after about a year and half - conservatively, I estimate it took seven to eight hundred attorney hours. This was a case on behalf of a child with Asperger's whose parents took on a large and powerful school district. It was significant for two reasons: because this child's best interests were at stake - a bright child with tremendous ability - and because it sends a clear message to the school district and to other parents about rights and responsibilities.

Editor: Talk about Jerry Shestack's contribution. Could you describe his project, the Shestack Fellowship, that he originated, and the work of some of the recipients?

Karetnick : I was actually the first recipient of the Shestack Fellowship about ten years ago. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, I came to WolfBlock and spent two years working for the Public Interest Law Center in Philadelphia. The fellowship is structured in such a way that a first-year attorney splits his or her time between WolfBlock and a nonprofit in the city. Essentially, the nonprofit receives a part-time staff attorney at no cost. That staff attorney is supported not only by being provided a salary by WolfBlock, but the firm also financially supports many of the activities of the non-profit by picking up some operating expenses. I worked for the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia doing plaintiff civil rights and a lot of education law. One of our fellows has worked for the ACLU. Another of our fellows worked in environmental protection. Our current fellow is working for the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania. No organization has thus far received a fellow twice, although an organization is certainly not precluded from doing so.

Editor: What is your program for training summer associates in pro bono?

Chirls: I have the honor to be the hiring partner. We do a couple of things. We have a pool of research questions that are supplied to us by two groups, the Anti- Defamation League and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia. We make the pool of research questions available to summer associates, ask them to take a project, write a memo, get it reviewed, and understand that a pro bono client is treated like every other client. They have deadlines and demands for quality. We make sure they do a great job. They may also pick up cases from the AIDS Law Project so that if they don't want to do litigation and research and would rather do a will under the supervision of one of our lawyers or a power of attorney, they can do so. There are other pro bono cases and matters that are in this office that our summer associates get called upon to work on. So they are participating in pro bono actively the way our full-time associates are.

Editor: How does a firm's commitment to pro bono and public service paint a living portrait of the firm?

Chirls: It's part of our heritage, our present and our future. The community is better for our participation and we are better for our participation in the community, both because it makes us complete as lawyers and it brings us knowledge about how our community works. It makes our associates better for the professionalism they gain, and it fulfills our obligation as lawyers.

Please email the interviewees at achirls@wolfblock.com or akaretnick@wolfblock.com with questions about this interview.