Pro Bono: A Lawyer's Finest Hour

Monday, August 2, 2010 - 01:00

Editor: Bob, please describe our readers about your practice at Kelley Drye. How did you become interested in pro bono matters?

Crotty: I have been at Kelley Drye since 1973. My practice at Kelley Drye has been as a commercial litigator. I have a full-time practice as a litigator doing trials, appeals, arbitrations, mediation, the full range of a commercial law practice. I began doing pro bono at Kelley Drye as an associate in 1973, working with the community law offices of the Legal Aid Society. When I became a partner in 1982, the firm asked me to head up the pro bono committee, a position I have held since that time.

Editor: Please tell us about some of Kelley Drye's pro bono activities.

Crotty: Kelley Drye has a wide variety of pro bono activities. We get many cases from the pro bono agencies, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, MFY Legal Services, inMotion, Volunteers of Legal Services to name a few. Several partners at the firm serve on boards or organizations focused on the legal needs of underserved communities. I am on the board of directors at Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A and Volunteers of Legal Services; Bill Escobar is on the board of MFY; Sarah Reid is on the board of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and Neil Merkl is on the board of the Legal Aid Society. In addition to our New York office, our Washington, D.C., Connecticut, New Jersey and Chicago offices are all very active in pro bono.

We also handle pro bono activities, representing organizations where a partner or an associate has a particular interest, running the gamut from community organizations to churches, synagogues and schools. Our program is directed toward what people at Kelley Drye want to do rather than imposing upon our associates projects that are of little interest to them.

Editor: Are all these services that the firm performs for religious organizations and schools of a legal nature?

Crotty: Religious organizations and schools have some needs that must be addressed from time to time that require legal skills.

Editor: What are some of the ancillary benefits of a pro bono program in terms of, for example, training associates or building goodwill for the firm? How does this affect firm morale?

Crotty: A good pro bono program is multi-faceted. Whether litigators or corporate attorneys, lawyers have an interest in having a strong legal system and one that will have the respect of all members of society. Many people have no idea of what big law firms do or what commercial litigation is about, but they do have a very immediate relationship with civil courts, such as family court, where their own lives are directly impacted. A strong pro bono program helps improve the courts. By giving people the representation they need, they will understand the system to be fair and impartial and providing a just result, after a fair hearing. This is important to all lawyers and to society in general. Lawyers are officers of the court. If the legal system does not work well, lawyers as members of a profession, must take some of the responsibility. A good pro bono program helps to make the system fair and equitable.

On an individual basis, pro bono assignments provide younger lawyers with the chance to appear in court and argue on their feet, to see how judges react to different arguments, and to get a feel for what the courts address. As lawyers they come to understand that the courts deal with many types of issues, not exclusively, complicated commercial cases. It gives us all an insight into what problems society has to deal with as well. There is a whole panoply of reasons for having a good pro bono program, running from good training to a broader look at our entire legal system.

Editor: How is Kelley Drye's pro bono initiative distinguished from that of other organizations?

Crotty: Most firms are doing many of the same types of activities that Kelley Drye pursues - trying to help out as many different pro bono agencies as they can and getting less experienced lawyers involved so that they receive the benefits of a broader view of the legal profession. Pro bono is not strictly for the younger associates. At Kelley Drye it encompasses many of our partners who are active with various organizations.

Editor: You have been active as a director of the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. What has been the firm's relationship with this non-profit and some of the others with similar missions?

Crotty: I believe Kelley Drye was one of the founding members of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and has always had a member on the board. It is a marvelous clearing house for all types of pro bono projects, having grown larger and stronger over the years. In the past for many years, I served as a director of the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and now, another Kelley Drye partner, Sarah Reid, volunteers on its board, where she is a member of the executive committee.

Our work has been recognized by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, MFY and inMotion. The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law presented its award a few months ago to Bob Ehrenbard who has served on their board for many years. The Pro Bono Partnership in New Jersey earlier this year gave Amy Festante, one of our Parsippany associates, its 2009 Volunteer of the Year Award. In less than a year, Amy handled 10 different matters. This included assisting The Children's House, a child care center in Verona, in resolving several challenges regarding their lease of space. The Pro Bono Partnership is active in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York, providing assistance to nonprofit organizations in developing bylaws, doing corporate work, and litigating cases.

Editor: Kelley Drye has also been active with the Equal Rights Center. Please discuss the mission of this group.

Crotty: Along with the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Dechert LLP, Kelley Drye represented the Equal Rights Center in Washington, D.C. in a major lawsuit. On behalf of the ERC we successfully negotiated a settlement in its fair housing case against AvalonBay Communities. As a result, more than 8,000 housing units were surveyed to ensure that they complied with design and construction requirements of the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Editor: Kelley Drye associates have participated in an externship program with the Law Offices of the City of New York. Describe the benefits that accrue to the associates and the type of program offered.

Crotty: The Law Department of the City of New York has been sponsoring this program for many years. We've sent several associates to spend five or six months litigating cases for the City. It's really hands on litigation - they take and defend depositions, and go into the courtroom to actually try cases. All of our associate interns have done opening statements and some have tried cases to their conclusions, so it's a great education. It is often very difficult for even second or third year associates to gain trial experience. This program allows new associates to walk into the courtroom, choose juries, make opening statements, and to take on trials at very early stages in their careers. Trying cases is unique, and until you've done it, you don't really have an understanding of what it is actually like. The lawyers we have sent to the City's Law Offices have all come back praising the program, finding it to be a very rewarding experience.

Editor: What is the most rewarding experience you have had in performing pro bono work?

Crotty: Early in my career I represented a teenager who had been found with a toy gun. Under the city administrative code, it was a violation to carry even a toy gun. The youngster was apprehended and taken into court accompanied by his mother, who did not speak English. Even though I had earlier met with and counseled them, the mother was completely surprised that I would show up in court. She was visibly relieved and very appreciative to have legal representation for her son.

On a broader level, when I see attorneys at Kelley Drye committed to pro bono work, doing it well and enthusiastically, that is also a fulfilling aspect of my job. They are not only supporting our whole system of laws but they are advancing their own careers by expanding their skills to become better lawyers.

Editor: Why do you regard pro bono as "one of the highest callings of the profession"?

Crotty: Pro bono legal work goes way, way back in time. Lawyers have always volunteered representation since this complements the idea of our responsibilities to the court. Law impacts all of society. It is important and necessary that we take on work that is not compensated for the system to uphold its essential ideals of equal protection and justice under the laws. The law must be fair to everybody, if it is going to work for anybody. I think pro bono is one of the highest callings for lawyers.

Lawyers frequently ask in giving their time, how do I succeed in making a living and still volunteer my services? However, over the centuries lawyers have always juggled that commitment, properly balancing pro bono obligations and other professional duties. They recognize pro bono work is not separate and distinct from, but instead an important part of the profession.

Please email the interviewee at rcrotty@kelleydrye.com with questions about this interview.