A Lawyer's Highest Calling

Monday, August 2, 2010 - 01:00

Editor: Please remind our readers of how you came to the law.

Hoffmann: Although I have been practicing law for 32 years, law is actually a second career for me. As a teacher at a small college in upstate New York, I taught a course on the philosophy of law, which intrigued me about law itself. I went to law school at William & Mary, and, after clerking for a judge on the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, in 1978 I began practicing law. Since being named King & Spalding's only full-time pro bono partner , I have divided my time between administering the pro bono program, generating pro bono cases for other lawyers in the firm and actually handling cases myself.

Editor: How do you work with pro bono cases in other offices?

Hoffmann: Each King & Spalding office has a pro bono committee (with a chair and, in some cases, a co-chair). It is essential that we have lawyers in each office who are able to dedicate some of their time to pro bono. One of the hallmarks of a good pro bono program is that if there is a firm-wide pro bono partner, that person can serve as a resource for other lawyers, sometimes by helping them to find cases. When they or their colleagues find cases on their own, I can in some instances provide some expertise, resources or support. There are some matters that we staff on a cross-office basis, especially those involving international human rights work.

Editor: Has the focus on pro bono at King & Spalding been curtailed in any way owing to the recession?

Hoffmann: The numbers have remained pretty steady - in fact, there has been an uptick in the last year despite the recession. There is more need for the less fortunate in our society who are hit harder by the recession and so there are more cases, such as eviction cases. We try to take cases where we can produce the maximum result for our investment of time and expenses for travel, court reporters and expert witnesses. Therefore, we try to find matters that will meet more local needs and are stimulating for our associates while at the same time bearing in mind the need for efficiencies in difficult economic times.

Editor: Do you have a separate staff?

Hoffmann: Linda Parish, our Director of Community Affairs, divides her time between doing pro bono work and general civic and charitable work at the firm, much of which is done in association with our clients with whom there is a joint interest in supporting a particular organization. In addition, Kathryn Fuhrman, one of our corporate lawyers and co-chair of the Atlanta Pro Bono Committee, spends part-time on pro bono non-litigation matters. Every year we have one or two associates who serve as the pro bono coordinator in finding pro bono matters and mentoring our summer associates.

Editor: Former Solicitor General Paul Clement joined King & Spalding last year. I understand he has been arguing pro bono cases before the Supreme Court.

Hoffmann: In the 2009 issue we talked about one of his cases, the Kenny A case here in Georgia, and since that time there have been two other Supreme Court cases. This past year he argued a case, Pottawattamie County v. McGhee , on behalf of two individuals who had been convicted under circumstances where state court prosecutors had fabricated evidence. He represented African-American teenagers who were framed for a murder by white prosecutors and convicted by an all-white jury. Ultimately they were released after 25 years in prison when the true facts came out, but then they filed a lawsuit against the prosecutors to seek damages for their conduct. The prosecutors maintained that they were absolutely immune from any lawsuit. That case went all the way to the Supreme Court. Paul argued that they were not immune and that they were liable for damages. Shortly after the case was argued before the Supreme Court, the state prosecutors agreed to settle the case far an amount in excess of seven figures.

The second case, Schwarzenegger v. Plata , for which the Supreme Court has recently granted certiorari, is expected to be argued early in the next term. This is a case testing the constitutionality of the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act. Under that statute a federal court ordered the release of up to 46,000 prisoners in California because of substandard prison conditions in the state, which the state was unwilling or unable to correct. The Act allows for release of prisoners only as a last resort if no other relief is available. The state of California is challenging the law on the basis that Congress does not have the right to authorize courts to impose conditions on the state prison system. Paul will be representing the class of inmates in California in connection with that argument before the Supreme Court.

Editor: Please share with our readers some of the international human rights work you are currently handling.

Hoffmann: International human rights has been a big focus of our pro bono practice although it is not to the detriment of meeting local needs. We have a great variety of different kinds of international human rights work. In a recent Guantánamo case, the court granted habeas corpus relief to a man from Yemen who had been arrested in Afghanistan, but he was never charged with any crime and had been in detention in Guantánamo for seven years. It is currently on appeal.

Another example of the variety of our experience is our work with the International League for Human Rights on the Bloody Sunday report about the killing of Irish by British soldiers, a report that was just released within the last two or three weeks (after the British elections).

In fact, our international human rights work is falling into two broad, general categories - one is protecting the victim and the other is punishing the perpetrators. Asylum is certainly one of the most important ways to protect victims of persecution in other countries. In this last year we have won asylum cases for refugees from Liberia, Ethiopia and Iran. We have an upcoming hearing for another refugee from Iran and have just taken on a case for a refugee from Somalia.

In the Liberian case our client was the grandson of a former president of Liberia, and his father worked for another ruler of Liberia, Samuel Doe, who committed atrocities and was ultimately killed himself. He was followed by Charles Taylor. During the civil war in Liberia our client came to the United States as a child and ultimately was faced with deportation. For him to go back to Liberia would have been extremely dangerous because there was some thought that his father had betrayed Samuel Doe and assisted Charles Taylor, but he was also associated with Samuel Doe so was at odds with the supporters of Charles Taylor. So there are two separate groups in Liberia who would very likely have sought vengeance on this young man had we not won relief from deportation for him.

With respect to the Iranian cases, our client was one who took to the streets in 2009 protesting the election; he was photographed and marked by the paramilitary as being antigovernment. He had to go underground and ultimately came to the United States where he applied for asylum. We won his case last month, and he is adjusting to being on a citizenship track in the United States.

The other Iranian case, that of an Iranian Kurd, is coming up for trial shortly. It presents an entirely different set of issues because of the Kurdish Independence Movement.

Similar to the asylum work is the human trafficking work. In association with GAIN, the Georgia Asylum and Immigration Network, we have made the trafficking cases one of our signature projects. We have a number of pending cases and in fact have introduced one of our best clients, the Coca Cola Company, to the trafficking project and are working jointly with in-house lawyers in this area.

On the side of punishing the perpetrators we have worked on behalf of international war crimes tribunals. We have been retained as amicus counsel or independent counsel by the special court for Sierra Leone in the trial of Charles Taylor for crimes against humanity. We have also been retained by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda to investigate and possibly prosecute claims of witness intimidation by the prosecution in an effort to squelch their testimony. We have investigated cases of alleged perjury before the same Tribunal for Rwanda as well as individuals who are alleged to have coerced witnesses to testify falsely in favor of the prosecution. This work has been jointly staffed by the Washington and Atlanta offices. I went to Africa a couple of times in order to conduct these investigations and was supported by associates both in Atlanta and Washington in compiling all the material and applying the law to the facts that I discovered in my investigation in submitting reports to the court.

One of our associates in Washington has connections with the Cambodia tribunal that is trying the Khmer Rouge resulting in our serving as outside pro bono counsel to the prosecution before the Cambodia tribunal.

We are also handling Hague Convention cases where there will be a child custody issue - instances where a parent not entitled to custody takes the child into the United States. Under the Hague Convention a hearing is held in federal court. We have had several children returned to the proper parent.

Editor: Do you still find many of your cases through the Saturday Lawyer Program?

Hoffmann: We do. This is a program where we are meeting the needs in our community - anything from a landlord/ tenant dispute to a credit dispute to someone who is not being paid wages that are owed. Several times a year we send three or four lawyers to staff the intake at the Saturday Lawyer Program and always come back with a handful of cases.

Editor: What are you doing locally and statewide in regard to criminal justice?

Hoffmann: We have a close relationship with the public defender in nearby Hall County with whom we are handling probable cause hearings to determine whether people charged with crimes will be bound over for trial or whether the charges will be dismissed. This is a great program for our young associates who can spend time on their feet in a courtroom cross-examining police officers. These are cases that you do not always expect to win, but they are invaluable because in going through the case you discover what the government case is going to be and how strong your position is for a possible plea bargain, and if the case is not one that lends itself to plea bargaining, you gain information that is helpful in ultimately defending the case. It is a near perfect experience for a young lawyer for getting courtroom experience. It also is helping to meet a need here in Georgia where we have a real crisis with indigent defense owing to the paucity of state funding where the state has the obligation to provide indigent defense.

Editor: Would you like to make a concluding remark?

Hoffmann: King & Spalding has a very strong public service and pro bono commitment harkening back to James Sibley who in the '50s headed the commission that peacefully desegregated the schools in Georgia. Griffin Bell, member of the firm and former Attorney General of the United States, did significant pro bono work while at the firm. Judge Bell provided a model for those of us who can only aspire to follow in his footsteps. With this kind of leadership there has always been a strong commitment to pro bono work at King & Spalding, but frankly I think there has been that commitment in the profession generally. We can all tell our lawyer jokes, but lawyers generally realize how fortunate they are to have their place in our society along with the obligation to help those who are less fortunate and whose rights won't be vindicated unless someone will represent them for free. I am first proud to be part of a profession that adheres to that kind of standard and second proud to be part of a firm that exemplifies the best in our profession in that regard.

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