Pro Bono: The Joy Of Giving Back

Monday, June 23, 2014 - 08:59

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

Editor: What experiences in your early life prompted your interest in pro bono work?

Toll: On that issue, I give credit to my parents and extended family. I was raised to give back. Volunteering is a very important activity in my family, and one of the main reasons I went to law school was to help people.

At Harvard Law School, one of my most valuable experiences was at a public defender clinic in my third year, where we represented indigent residents of Boston in criminal trials under clinical supervision – which was a really great experience. I initially started my career at a different law firm. Prior to coming to King & Spalding, I was a public defender for the state of Maryland for four years, which was a great experience. It gave me firsthand exposure to how compelling the needs of indigent people are, especially in urban areas. When I was looking to come back to private practice, I wanted to come to a firm with a very strong pro bono program, and King & Spalding fit that bill.

Editor: I’m so glad that you landed there and that we were able to talk today. King & Spalding has an enviable record of pro bono achievement. Who at the firm originally inspired such dedication to pro bono service?

Toll: Pro bono has always been deeply embedded in the firm’s culture. I have seen that every day over the eight years I have been with the firm. The late Judge Griffin Bell was a major figure in the firm’s culture as a former judge, former attorney general of the United States, and a mentor to many at this firm. I know how much he emphasized pro bono and giving back. It was something that he demonstrated by example. His spirit really lives on here at the firm and is reflected in the pro bono work that we do.

Editor: How is it organized throughout your many offices?

Toll: I’m the pro bono counsel and have overall leadership of the firm’s pro bono program. We have a firmwide pro bono committee that’s made up of myself, our community affairs director Linda Parrish, and the pro bono chairs in each U.S. office.

Editor: How often do you and the other pro bono chairs meet?

Toll: We meet by conference call on a quarterly basis. Some of the larger offices also have pro bono committees. In DC, for example, our office committee meets on a quarterly basis.

Editor: Tell us about King & Spalding’s receipt of the Beacon of Justice Award.

Toll: At the end of last year, we were very pleased to obtain the Beacon of Justice Award from the National Legal Aid & Defender Association. That award was in recognition of the firm’s habeas corpus and death penalty work, which is a big part of our pro bono program. It was awarded in honor of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, which enshrined the right to counsel. We have handled a number of cases where we’ve obtained truly outstanding results. Many of our cases have involved allegations of ineffective assistance by the original trial counsel. We see that work as fulfilling the highest aim of the legal profession – to make sure everyone receives effective representation.

Editor: Tell us about a few of the cases you have handled.

Toll: We were very pleased in the fall of last year to have exonerated one of our pro bono clients. A team of lawyers in our Atlanta office worked on this case for a number of years. After a lengthy investigation, they documented the fact that our client was wrongfully convicted of murder. They filed an extraordinary motion for a new trial in DeKalb County Superior Court based on newly discovered evidence. After the motion was granted, they had further negotiations and convinced the prosecution to allow our client to be released. The result was entered into a national exoneration database. We’re very proud of that result.

King & Spalding has a very close relationship with the Atlanta Legal Aid Society. As one of the cornerstone pro bono service providers in Atlanta, it is on the frontlines of helping the indigent population of Atlanta meet its civil legal needs.

In October of 2010, King & Spalding began to work with it on a pro bono basis to locate and acquire a new headquarters building. Because they had grown too large for their existing space, finding a new building was critical to continuing their vital mission. Drawing upon our very extensive and deep experience in real estate, we worked directly with Steve Gottlieb, executive director of Legal Aid. After a sustained effort, in May 2013 we were successful in helping the Legal Aid Society close on a new headquarters in downtown Atlanta.

We have also obtained some great victories in immigration and asylum matters, working with, among others, the Georgia Asylum and Immigration Network.

Editor: Care for disabled veterans has been spotlighted in the press recently. What has your firm done to help?  

Toll: One of the main areas of our firmwide pro bono program is assisting disabled veterans. We are very proud of the fact that we’ve been able to help a segment of our society that has given our citizens so much and sacrificed so much for this country.

Veterans have compelling needs. Many veterans unfortunately return with very serious conditions. We’ve worked hard firmwide on behalf of disabled veterans to represent them at all the various stages of the process to obtain the disability benefits to which they’re entitled.

Lane Dennard, a retired partner from the Atlanta office, is a decorated veteran who established the Emory Law Volunteer Clinic for Veterans. The firm has worked closely with the Emory Clinic. It has been a really great partnership for us. It has enabled us to make our continuing representation of veterans even more substantial. Our District of Columbia office is launching a project with the National Veterans Legal Services Program, which is a DC-based nonprofit designed to represent veterans at physical evaluation boards and medical evaluation boards to help them obtain appropriate disability ratings. We’re very proud of our work in that area.

A team of lawyers primarily in our New York office, with assistance from an associate in our DC office, has secured a victory on behalf of its client in an international custody dispute brought under the Hague Convention. We were victorious following a one-week bench trial in Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York. We were representing the father of an eight-year-old who had lived with her father in New York since July of 2012. The petition was seeking the child’s return to Spain. We argued on behalf of our client that it was in the best interest of the child to remain in the United States. Following the trial, which involved testimony from a number of people, Judge Abrams agreed with our position and issued an order directing the petition to be denied so that the eight-year-old can remain in this country, which we firmly believe is in the child’s best interest. We’re very proud of that result.

One of our main programs in the DC office is that we work with the DC Bar Pro Bono Program’s Advocacy & Justice Clinic, which is targeted to indigent residents of the District of Columbia to assist them with basic legal needs. We represented an indigent woman who came to DC from Ethiopia in a family law case in the District of Columbia Superior Court. It was a divorce, child custody, child support and spousal support case. We were successful after a multi-day bench trial in which King & Spalding associates took the lead and received outstanding experience. They successfully advocated on behalf of our client and obtained an impressive outcome in that case.

The final thing that I’ll touch on briefly is our work with a nonprofit organization called Miracle Feet and a group of students from Stanford University to develop an innovative new brace which is being rolled out this month in clinics in India and Africa to treat club foot – one of the most common birth defects worldwide.

King & Spalding’s patent agent, Tim Smith, worked on the case in conjunction with our intellectual property group by collaborating with Miracle Feet and the Stanford group. He gave them advice on their design and helped them file a provisional patent application and will also help them draft and file the final patent application. It’s a great result and demonstrates that our pro bono program is having a global impact – of which we are quite proud.

Editor: Does the firm require that associates and partners put in a certain number of pro bono hours?

Toll: Our policy is and has been that we don’t require pro bono. We don’t believe in requiring pro bono. We have a very high participation rate in our pro bono program. The lawyers, legal assistants and other staff who participate in our pro bono program do so because they truly want to give back – not because they have to. As I mentioned, pro bono is a very important part of the firm’s culture. We have a voluntary goal in that we encourage attorneys to put in at least 50 hours per year, but many of our attorneys exceed that goal.

Editor: How do you feel about your role in the firm’s pro bono activities?

Toll: For me, it’s been a true pleasure and an honor to be the pro bono counsel for King & Spalding. We have designed our program to assist the most vulnerable members of our society – those who need our help the most. It’s been extremely rewarding to see that our hard work is impacting our pro bono clients’ lives in such positive ways.

One of the best parts of my job as pro bono counsel is getting my colleagues involved and seeing how much they enjoy working on pro bono. It’s also been wonderful to work with our associates and to mentor them as they work on pro bono cases – and to witness their enthusiasm and energy about pro bono. They not only enjoy the feeling of giving back but appreciate some of the great experiences they get in handling pro bono cases. I always describe pro bono as a win-win because it’s great for us to give back, and also the cases are a lot of fun and provide valuable experience. It’s been rewarding to be pro bono counsel for King & Spalding, and I look forward to continuing to guide our program.

 

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