Defending Individuals And Vindicating Principles

Wednesday, June 26, 2013 - 10:40

The Editor interviews Joshua C. Toll, Pro Bono Counsel, King & Spalding LLP.

Editor: Tell us what led to your leadership role in the firm’s pro bono activities?

Toll: Prior to coming to King & Spalding in 2006, I worked for the Office of the Public Defender for the State of Maryland for four years. Giving back through my work as a lawyer has always been very important to me. The public defender position gave me great trial experience as well as experience working with an indigent population.

It was important to me to find a firm with a proud tradition of pro bono work. King & Spalding was such a firm.  I took on a leadership role in the DC office’s pro bono program, and at the end of last year, with the retirement of pro bono partner Bill Hoffman, I took overall leadership of the firm’s pro bono program.

Editor: Have the firm’s pro bono activities received public recognition?

Toll:  As examples, I will mention a few of the highlights. The firm just received an outstanding achievement award from the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs for our work to combat mortgage modification scams in local communities. The firm is also being honored by University Legal Services, a nonprofit that deals with mental health issues, for successfully settling a case we brought in the DC Federal District Court to challenge the conditions at St. Elizabeths, a public mental health hospital.

Last year we were honored for our pro bono work by the DC Circuit. Also last year, the Georgia Asylum and Immigration Network (GAIN) named an annual award for my predecessor, retired King & Spalding pro bono partner Bill Hoffman. The William E. Hoffman Service Award is the first named award that GAIN has given. GAIN provides representation to asylum seekers as well as immigrant victims of domestic violence, human trafficking, sexual assault and other crimes. We were also honored by the Pro Bono Partnership of Atlanta. We received an Excellence in Pro Bono Award from the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation. Several years ago, we received the inaugural American Bar Association Death Penalty Representation Volunteer Award in recognition of our work with death row inmates.

Editor: To what extent are the firm’s pro bono activities important to your corporate clients?

Toll: What I’ve seen is that questions about pro bono as well as diversity are increasingly being raised in RFPs, and clients are increasingly asking to collaborate with us in pro bono cases. For example, our Atlanta office, working with the Pro Bono Partnership, teamed up with a significant corporate client to provide legal advice to a local nonprofit.

Editor: Pro bono seems to break down into two categories: representing individuals who are unable to afford to hire counsel, and involvement in matters that affect the rights of many individuals who likewise may not be able to afford counsel. Could you give us some examples of cases where your firm achieved a satisfactory outcome for individuals?

Toll: We are very pleased to have obtained great results for individual pro bono clients in cases throughout the firm. In Atlanta, a team of our lawyers just had an extraordinary motion for a new trial granted on behalf of a client who has maintained his innocence in a murder case, and has been serving a life sentence.  As part of our continuing representation of that client, we are making an effort to convince the prosecution to not even bring a new trial, but to instead release our client from incarceration in light of his innocence. But the fact that the motion for a new trial was granted, we think, is a turning point in his case and a great result in and of itself.  In a similar vein, a team of our lawyers from the DC, Atlanta, and Houston offices obtained a victory in a death penalty case in Virginia last year in a federal district court and then in the Fourth Circuit, although the Commonwealth of Virginia does have the option to retry our client.

Also, in our Atlanta office, through our partnership with the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation and the Legal Aid Bureau, we have obtained successes for our individual clients in a variety of civil matters, including eviction and domestic violence matters, as well as a longstanding program known as the Saturday Lawyer Program. Our Houston, DC and New York offices have also achieved wins in cases for individuals. Several of our offices have achieved victories in asylum cases and great outcomes for veterans.

Editor: Please mention some cases or legislation where the outcome established an important principle.

Toll:  In the St. Elizabeths Hospital case, we supported the principle of governmental accountability. We have repeatedly sought to vindicate important principles of international human rights through our asylum work and combating human trafficking. We’ve also taken on cases before important international tribunals. For example, we are representing victims’ interests before the UN Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Cambodia.

Our death penalty work often involves habeas corpus cases where the representation provided to the client at trial was deficient. In these cases, our work has reinforced the bedrock principle of constitutional law that every person accused of a crime deserves not just any lawyer, but an effective one. Through our work representing victims of domestic violence, we’ve done our best to address an important societal problem. Through our work representing veterans, we’ve helped make sure that our society addresses the needs of a group of people who have given us so much.

Editor: As a result of the recession, there’s an expanded need for pro bono services. How is the firm responding to that need?

Toll: We are doing our best across all our offices to address basic needs that become more acute in a recession or depression. For example, our lawyers across the firm have sought to prevent persons from becoming homeless by working on eviction defense cases. It has been shown that economic stresses can lead to an increase in domestic violence, and we have tried to address that by increasing the number of domestic violence victims that we are representing.

Editor: Do you work with corporate legal departments?

Toll:  A corporate client in Houston wants to work with us on some of our cases with the Houston Volunteer Lawyers Program, a leading legal-services provider in Houston. We are hoping to expand the number of cases in which we collaborate with corporate clients.

Editor: Another effect of the recession is a cutback in the number of judges and court staff. How is this affecting the pro bono cases you handle?

Toll: I definitely think this is a very significant concern. We may start to see longer postponements in some of our civil pro bono cases. For example, we take on disability cases on behalf of individuals who, due to their disabilities, are not able to work. Therefore, they need to obtain disability benefits as soon as possible. We have already seen significant waiting times in these types of cases.

Editor: In order to stimulate pro bono services, New York State has established a 50-hour pro bono requirement for admission to the bar. What effect will this have on the recruitment of law school graduates by the firm’s New York office?

Toll: We suspect that many law students who plan to take the New York bar will likely address this requirement while still in law school, and my understanding is that the new rule permits them to do that. As it currently stands, we make every effort to involve our summer associates in pro bono work. We hope to enable summer associates in our New York office to satisfy some or all of that requirement through their work on pro bono cases.

Editor: Organizations play a significant role in encouraging pro bono activities. Many of them reach out actively to place pro bono clients with law firms. Are you seeing this occur on an increasing scale?

Toll: All our offices rely very heavily on our pro bono partner organizations to help us find suitable pro bono cases. We rely on our pro bono organizational partners to engage in a case-screening function because we want to focus our efforts on those pro bono cases that would most benefit from our help.

Editor: Do you find that there are clients that have a very significant dedication to pro bono?

Toll: Absolutely. We’re seeing a lot more activity from a significant number of corporate clients who are approaching us, talking to us about pro bono, asking us what types of pro bono cases we’re doing, and seeking to collaborate with us. A few months ago, I attended the Pro Bono Institute Annual Conference. It’s a national conference that attracts a broad spectrum of lawyers from different realms including many lawyers from in-house corporate legal departments. Just to see how many corporate counsel were there speaks exactly to the point that more and more of America’s corporations are increasing their pro bono efforts.

Please email the interviewee at with questions about this interview.