At Proskauer, Pro Bono As A Practice In The Truest Sense

Wednesday, June 20, 2012 - 13:50

 

The Editor interviews Scott Harshbarger, Senior Counsel and Chair of the Pro Bono Initiative Committee, and Stacey O’Haire Fahey, Firmwide Pro Bono Counsel.  

 

Editor: Please tell us about your professional backgrounds.

Harshbarger: I was elected district attorney of Middlesex County, and then attorney general of Massachusetts, serving eight years in both before becoming president of Common Cause in Washington, DC, in 1999. I came to Proskauer six years ago to launch my practice in corporate governance and regulatory work. Shortly thereafter, Allen Fagin, the then-new chair of the firm, asked me to chair the new Pro Bono Initiative, which would integrate the firm’s tradition of public service systemically into a Pro Bono Practice Group. For me, it was a great opportunity to use my public service and nonprofit background to help a major law firm become a valuable partner with the public interest community.

Allen truly signaled the firm's commitment when he also created a full-time, firmwide pro bono counsel position and selected the very highly regarded Stacey Fahey to fill it in February 2006.

Fahey: I started my legal career here years ago in our healthcare group, where I mostly focused on not-for-profit corporate governance issues, working closely with our nonprofit practice and our healthcare lawyers.

Harshbarger: Through the Pro Bono Initiative, we’ve developed our pro bono commitment into a professional, disciplined and credible working practice group, with a full-time, experienced staff. With the PBI, we created the expectation that pro bono work will be performed at the same level of excellence and commitment as any billable work.

Editor: How are pro bono matters chosen and approved?

Fahey: We have developed very strong relationships nationally and globally with pro bono legal service referral partners who often do the screening and provide the necessary training for our lawyers to take on pro bono matters. Right now we have over 500 active cases, and to staff, monitor and track them we have a full-time pro bono coordinator here in New York as well as committee designees in each of our offices and in each New York department.  

Harshbarger: We also ensure that people will be trained, supervised and monitored in their performance. By establishing community partnerships, ranging from small locally based organizations to national ones, such as the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, our partners are able to refer the kinds of cases we want and can handle, and which we commit to staff when they refer them to us. In addition, we pledge that we will do what we can to support them, which has been particularly important during the economic downturn, when so many of our community partners – and their clients – face extreme economic challenges.

Editor: I imagine in your years at Proskauer you have had some pro bono cases that stand out. Would you share a story with our readers?

Fahey: As an example, Francis Landrey has led a death penalty case for an inmate in Florida since 1987. He and paralegal Joan Hoffman and many lawyers over the years have been remarkable and unwavering in their commitment to get this client off death row. Generally though, each of those more than 500 cases I mentioned earlier are often very real matters to very real people – a Social Security check, a place to live, or access to healthcare.

Harshbarger: It’s often the cases that don’t get the headlines that are most important. In this kind of public interest lawyering, the reward comes with the impact you make – the opportunity to blend your personal values and your professional skills to make a difference in somebody’s life, to ensure that people who can’t otherwise afford lawyers have access to equal justice and equal protection in both civil and criminal cases.  

Editor: Your Boston office has formed a public-private partnership – the first of its kind – with the Middlesex county DA’s office to assist domestic violence victims. How is that program working out?

Harshbarger: The DA of Middlesex, Gerry Leone, has not only continued the focus on domestic violence that we began 30 years ago, but also has done an exceptional job of strengthening and expanding that priority. But the DA noted that, during the critical but separate civil restraining order process, most victims could not afford lawyers and had to represent themselves. Four years ago, the DA asked Proskauer in Boston if we could provide representation to those domestic violence victims on a pro bono basis. Since that pilot program was launched, we’ve devoted over 2,700 hours worth over a million dollars. Most importantly, we’ve represented more than 60 victims with a 95 percent success rate. The DA has repeatedly said that but for this representation, at least half of these victims would not have gotten the legal remedies to which they were entitled. Senior associate Amy Crafts leads the project, and the associates and staff involved take great pride in their ownership of it. Even better, as a result of our work, five other Boston law firms have been inspired to join us in our efforts.  

Fahey: On that note, some of our New York summer associates are attending the Courtroom Advocacy Project training held by Sanctuary for Families today in New York. Meanwhile, in our Washington, DC office, Ben Ogletree has been very involved with the Children’s Advocacy Center, where he has provided legal services since 2002.  

Editor: In many of its U.S. offices, Proskauer’s attorneys have worked on behalf of LGBT individuals. Please share a few examples with us.

Fahey: For over 20 years, our Personal Planning department in New York has gone to the Gay Men’s Health Crisis to help with personal planning needs. We’ve also assisted in LGBT asylum matters with Immigration Equality. I just spoke with one of our Boca Raton associates, Payal Salsburg, who won asylum for a Venezuelan who’d been harassed and abused by the Venezuelan police because of his sexual orientation. Over the years, David Grunblatt in Newark has provided wonderful support for our associates who take on these very challenging immigration cases.  

Editor: Proskauer’s pro bono work in the healthcare field reflects its renowned health care practice. Would you recount for our readers the work of Rick Zall in concert with the Clinton Health Access Initiative?

Fahey: As chair of the department, Rick has made the time over several years to represent the Clinton Health Access Initiative, mostly dealing with global pharmaceutical companies to make medicines more affordable and accessible. He has even travelled to Rwanda and Tanzania to see how these initiatives are working, and he’s involved many lawyers across the firm in this effort.

We have many healthcare-related pro bono projects. For example, in our Boca Raton office, real estate partner Stuart Kapp has been providing pro bono legal services for Can’t Stomach Cancer, an organization that is raising awareness and supporting research for stomach cancer.  

Harshbarger: Our health care practice does a lot of work with a range of nonprofit organizations, including Health Law Advocates in Boston. In addition, several attorneys from different practice areas have assisted the Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center in Roxbury, a major urban community health center that was close to bankruptcy and faced a number of very significant governance issues. We’ve provided litigation, real estate, loan, investigation and governance representation to enable the new leadership at Harvard Street to effect a significant turnaround. Our summer associates across departments have also played a major role. The work has also given our governance and other practice areas a higher profile.

Editor: Would you tell us about your various offices’ attempts to improve urban education?

Fahey: We have a long-standing relationship with Francis Lewis High School in Queens, New York, with a mentor moot court program led by litigation associate Evan Citron. Earl White, Rebecca Berkebile and others work closely with these motivated students.  

We also work with the Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice; Harlem Village Academies; Los Angeles Leadership Academy; and many others.

Harshbarger: These urban education and sports efforts also are attractive because they offer the opportunity for transactional work, as opposed to just litigation or trial work. In Boston, corporate senior counsel Mike Harrington has been counsel for several years for Good Sports, which provides athletic equipment for all sports to urban high schools. We also represent the Sportsmen’s Tennis & Enrichment Center in Roxbury, which was one of the first tennis programs in the country for urban youth. Corporate associate Conor Daly is helping them expand their educational and enrichment effort, and our IP department has done a lot of work with them. Jason Crelinsten has been a leader for Ice Hockey in Harlem for years.  

So, in addition to providing experience for our corporate counsel, our Pro Bono Initiative seeks projects that will have a very direct impact on the life of an institution. For example, a team led by Patrick Murphy has been working with Everybody Wins! U.S.A., a national children’s literacy and mentoring nonprofit, to build a national organization.  

Editor: Pro bono needs continue to grow apace, particularly in this challenging economy. Where are the largest “growth areas” in pro bono?  

Harshbarger: Recently we’ve been focusing on the legal needs of returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite the rhetoric, they are greatly underserved. We’re working with the National Guard Yellow Ribbon Program, the Volunteer Lawyers for Veterans, Veterans Assistance Project and bar associations to evaluate their needs. We’re also working with the SBA (Small Business Administration) Veteran’s Project and a nonprofit veterans’ business association to provide legal clinics for returning guards who have existing businesses or want to start businesses.  

One of the greatest problems we see right now is the lack of a central coordinating force. Major corporations such as Wal-Mart and NYC banks are prepared to offer jobs, but who is going to help the veterans find out about them, let alone prepare them? We intend to advocate strongly for this critical need for central coordination.

Fahey: We are working this election year again with a longtime partner, The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, in their non-partisan Election Protection Program. Under the leadership of Jennifer Scullion, we’ve hosted for years a voter hotline call center, reviewed election protection manuals for the state of Ohio, and been active in election reform litigation.  

Harshbarger: The economic downturn has severely affected community and nonprofit groups addressing family law, domestic violence, Social Security benefits, healthcare, education and more. This is the real test for major law firms and for us as a profession, because the need for equal access, equal justice and equal protection under law is probably the greatest it’s been since the Great Depression. The question is, what can we do to meet this challenge and seize this opportunity to be pacesetters? Here at Proskauer, we really hope to meet that challenge. In my view, while the public sector can and should provide leadership, we know that our community partners and many nonprofit legal service organizations are running on extremely limited resources. I am very hopeful that the major law firms in this country, including ours, will not only maintain their commitment but be willing to significantly raise the ante to ensure some measure of equal access and equal justice going forward.

Please email the interviewees at sharshbarger@proskauer.com or sfahey@proskauer.com with questions about this interview.