Pro Bono Work: Gaining By Giving Back

Tuesday, June 18, 2013 - 16:33

The Editor interviews Emily B. Goldberg, Pro Bono Director and Special Counsel, McCarter & English, LLP.

Editor: Emily, please tell our readers about your background as a visiting clinical professor of law at Seton Hall Law School before joining McCarter & English.

Goldberg: In 2007, I was asked to replace two clinical faculty members who were going on leave.  I took over teaching a Civil Litigation Clinic, which is part of Seton Hall Law School’s Center for Social Justice.  The clinical program is structured such that students are taught through the practice of law, by working on live cases.  In recent years, this teaching model has gotten a lot of attention from law schools for good reason: I believe the only good way to learn to become a lawyer is to learn by doing.

The Clinic that I taught had a varied docket of constitutional and civil rights cases in the areas of education law, prisoners’ rights, and police misconduct.  I worked on some truly exciting cases. I served as lead counsel in a case against the Passaic County Jail in which we challenged the horrific conditions of confinement there. The case was settled successfully after I left Seton Hall, and broad-based improvements are being made to the facility as  a result of the work done on that case. For example, when we filed the case, the population was nearly double the number that the jail was designed to hold. Today, the population is very close to the jail’s design capacity.  To have assisted in achieving that outcome remains the highlight of my career.

Editor: What is the organizational structure at McCarter for handling pro bono? How are matters selected?

Goldberg: I am the firm-wide Pro Bono Director, and I oversee the Pro Bono Program in our seven offices.  I work along with the firm-wide Pro Bono Committee, chaired by McCarter partner Geoffrey Rosamond. At least one member of the committee comes from each of our offices, and they collaborate with me to ensure the success of the program in their respective offices.

Editor: Is pro bono work accorded the same credit and advancement in the firm as for-profit legal work?

Goldberg: Yes, McCarter gives its associates unlimited billable credit for their pro bono time, which counts toward both their pay increases and their bonuses. Partners receive credit for what we call “committed hours,” which is time spent doing business development, community involvement, etc.

Editor: Do you have programs specially designed for training first- and second-year associates in handling pro bono?

Goldberg: As someone with a clinical teaching background, I am committed to training our attorneys to do pro bono work. Anyone who believes that pro bono work is “easier” than paying-client work is often in for a rude awakening. Pro bono cases are often in practice areas in which an attorney has no background, and the matters can be extremely challenging, both factually and legally. Unless a matter is very basic, or the prospective pro bono attorney already has a background in the area of the matter, I require attorneys be trained in the relevant area of law before taking on a case.

We are also in the process of developing a more formal pro bono training program. As I mentioned earlier, the only way to learn how to be a lawyer is “by doing,” yet young associates are getting fewer practical opportunities to learn how to do the hard stuff.  Pro bono can serve as a unique training ground for a young lawyer to take responsibility for a case – to directly interact with the client and opposing counsel, to determine case strategy, or to appear in court. Our Pro Bono Program provides structured and meaningful learning opportunities. For example, our Domestic Violence Project routinely enlists between 10 to 12 associates who are mentored by one of our Pro Bono Committee partners. Each associate appears in court for a hearing on behalf of his or her client and has access to quarterly lunch sessions, which are meant as a teaching tool to accompany the practical work. We’re looking to expand this model within the firm into other pro bono practice areas and other offices.

Editor: What sources do you rely upon to generate cases?

Goldberg: One of my most important tasks at the firm is to develop a diverse docket of cases – in terms of both subject matter and time commitment – for litigators and transactional attorneys alike. I work in seven offices in six different states. In each of these locations, I build a relationship with the public interest community and do a lot of affirmative outreach to local legal organizations in the hope that they will think of McCarter when they need help.

Editor: I understand the Pro Bono Partnership gave McCarter the Law Firm Volunteer Award for 2012. Congratulations!

Goldberg: Thank you, we are very proud of that. The Pro Bono Partnership matches nonprofit clients in the Tri-State Area with transactional attorneys. It isn’t always easy to find pro bono matters for non-litigators so, in addition to its fantastic efforts on behalf of nonprofits, the Partnership provides a very useful service to our lawyers, as well. I know that any matter they refer to us will be well-vetted and that we will receive support from them along the way.  We received the Law Firm of the Year award in recognition of our handling more Pro Bono Partnership matters than any other firm in 2012.

Editor: Please describe the eight areas of the law in which McCarter focuses its pro bono efforts.

Goldberg: Our major areas of practice are human rights, including our political asylum work; criminal justice; military and veterans’ affairs; family law; housing and consumer law; civil rights and civil liberties; education law; and nonprofit advice and counseling.

That said, we always leave room for special projects when urgent matters arise. For example, when our area was battered by Sandy last fall, our firm jumped very quickly to assist those affected by the storm.

Editor: Please tell our readers about McCarter partner David White, who secured a major victory in a case in reducing the sentence of a juvenile offender.

Goldberg: Dave is a member of our Pro Bono Committee and is based in our Wilmington office. He represented an individual named Lawrence Johnson, who, as a 15-year-old, served as a lookout during a robbery in which someone was killed. Lawrence had no prior criminal record. He admitted to participating in the planning and execution of a robbery, but Lawrence did not know that his two adult co-defendants would kill anyone. In 1996, at the age of 16, he was nonetheless charged and convicted of felony murder, among other offenses, and received a double-life sentence plus 105 years. Tragically, the state offered Lawrence a plea bargain involving a 10-year sentence, but Lawrence’s father refused to let him take it. In the end, the judge (Charles Toliver), the prosecutor and even the victim’s wife were each deeply uncomfortable with Lawrence’s sentence.

In 2011, Dave filed a post-conviction motion for this client, requesting a re-sentencing under a Supreme Court ruling which held that juvenile offenders may not be sentenced to life in prison without parole for non-homicide offenses. Then, in 2012, in Miller vs. Alabama, the Supreme Court held that automatic life sentences for minors are unconstitutional, even for those convicted of homicide offenses. Dave was driving when he heard about the decision on the news, and he immediately pulled over and called his secretary to dictate a letter to Judge Toliver, citing Miller and asking for his client’s immediate release.

From there, Dave negotiated with the state to secure an agreement that would radically reduce our client’s sentence. On April 2, 2013, Judge Toliver himself held the re-sentencing hearing and reduced the sentence to 20 years, restructuring it so that the client would be released. This case is still quite emotional for us; I can’t think of a better example of the power of pro bono.

Editor: Would you describe the Hartford office’s work in representing the Connecticut Bar as amicus in a case involving DOMA? I also understand you were awarded the Pillar of Progress Prize by Garden State Equality for your work in the Lewis vs. Harris case.

Goldberg: McCarter & English has been actively involved in marriage equality efforts for many years. We filed an amicus in the Connecticut Supreme Court case that ultimately achieved marriage equality, and we are one of the attorney groups representing amici in the case seeking to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act in the Supreme Court.

You specifically asked about our work in New Jersey.  In 2006, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in Lewis vs. Harris that same-sex couples were entitled to the same rights as married heterosexual couples, but refused to require that same-sex couples be allowed to marry. As a result, the civil union structure was created. But, in 2008, a commission found that same-sex couples were not being afforded the same rights as married couples. In 2010, an enforcement action was filed again to seek marriage equality in New Jersey.  McCarter represented Garden State Equality as amicus, along with a larger group of amici.  Our brief discussed the social and psychological harm that children of same-sex couples experience when their parents are not allowed to marry. Garden State Equality recognized our firm with the “Pillar of Progress Prize” for the work that we did on the brief.  Unfortunately, marriage equality still does not exist in New Jersey, despite efforts to achieve it both in the courts and in the legislative arenas.

Editor: Tell us about the Domestic Violence Project launched by the Newark office with Partners for Women and Justice.

Goldberg: Since 2010, we have represented domestic violence victims as they seek final restraining orders against their abusers. We do this work through a wonderful organization called Partners for Women and Justice.  Our associates agree to be on call two to three times per quarter. If called, they jump into court, usually performing half-day hearings on behalf of their clients. It’s incredibly emotional and important work.

Editor: Why should lawyers perform pro bono?

Goldberg: I believe every lawyer has a moral obligation to assist those who cannot afford legal assistance. As lawyers, we’ve been fortunate to have the opportunities necessary to serve in this very powerful profession.  We possess the keys to a highly complex and difficult-to-navigate system, and we have a responsibility to those who don’t have that access. The legal system can be terrifying for someone who cannot afford a lawyer.

And, as I said earlier, pro bono can be an important training ground for younger lawyers, who can gain meaningful experience relatively quickly when they’re solely responsible for managing a case. This makes pro bono an important resource for any law firm.

Furthermore, pro bono can build morale by pushing attorneys who do the same kind of work over and over to go beyond their comfort zones and learn new areas of law or new skills. Attorneys tell me that pro bono work excites and energizes them in their legal careers in a way their everyday practice may not; they tell me that they gain by giving back. They discover that pro bono is a privilege, not a burden.

Please email the interviewee at egoldberg@mccarter.com with questions about this interview.