'A Firm With A Strong Pro Bono Program Is One With Very High Firm Morale'

Sunday, August 1, 2004 - 01:00

Editor: Would each of you tell us how you came to Arent Fox?

Besunder:
I've been with Arent Fox since 2001. After law school I sought a position with a firm that had a strong litigation practice as well as a commitment to pro bono service, and Arent Fox was one of the few firms that satisfied both.

Fleischaker: I have been at Arent Fox since 1971, and I have spent my entire career with the firm. Pro bono service has been an important part of my career over this entire period.

Editor: Please tell us something about your practice.

Besunder:
I work with the litigation group on a variety of general commercial and corporate litigation cases, including reinsurance and insurance cases, contract disputes and disputes arising out of corporate transactions.

Fleischaker: My practice focuses on antitrust law, environmental law, and, in addition, I head the firm's representation of non-profit organizations, which is one of our leading practice areas.

Editor: Mark, would you give us an overview of the pro bono program?

Fleischaker:
For many years we have had a pro bono committee in our Washington and New York offices which is composed of a half dozen partners and associates. Members of that committee are entitled to spend about a third of their time on pro bono work and to receive full billing credit for that effort. The committee also oversees other work that is undertaken by the firm and its lawyers in the pro bono area. In order to encourage our lawyers to commit to pro bono work, we count up to 150 hours of pro bono time as billable hour time. If the attorney is working on an exceptional case that takes up more than 150 hours, and the project is deemed appropriate, the firm will make an exception and increase the number of pro bono hours that count as billable hours.

Editor: How do you address cases that take more time and resources than you had originally anticipated?

Fleischaker:
That can be an issue. For example, we represent some death row inmates, and those cases almost always consume a great deal of time and resources. Once we have made a commitment to such a matter, however, it is treated in the same way as any billable matter.

Editor: Do you screen the various projects that come in?

Fleischaker:
These matters are reviewed by the committee to see that there is no conflict of interest with any of our existing clients, as well as to ensure proper staffing.

Besunder: When attorneys find a project that appeals to them and submit the appropriate information to the committee, the response from the committee is usually positive.

Editor: How do you go about staffing the projects?

Fleischaker:
We do not require our attorneys or staff members to handle pro bono work. The person who has brought the matter to the attention of the committee works with the committee (assuming it is has been accepted as a firm pro bono project), to seek out others interested in lending a hand. There is no problem in finding people to staff these cases.

Besunder: There is also considerable interaction between the New York and Washington offices on our pro bono projects. Attorneys in the New York office work on matters that originate from the DC office, and vice versa.

Editor: Does the firm have a particular pro bono focus, say, prisoners' rights or the environment?

Fleischaker:
No. There is a very wide range of pro bono work - something for everyone - and there is no one practice area or discipline that has a particular entrée to it. Nor does this work reflect any particular ideological or political agenda. It is really all about helping people who are in need of legal services and unable to afford them.

Editor: Alison, you recently were honored with the Albert E. Arent Pro Bono Award. What is this award?

Besunder:
The award was created by the firm to honor the pro bono commitment of one of its founders, Albert Arent. Each year it is awarded to an associate who has demonstrated an exemplary commitment to pro bono service.

I received the award in recognition of my representation of a woman whose husband died in the World Trade Center attack. The decedent's former wife challenged our client's entitlement to benefits arising out of his death, such as benefits from the Red Cross and life insurance proceeds, as well as awards from the federal Victims' Compensation Fund. We negotiated a global settlement that equitably distributed the available funds between the parties and avoided what could have been a protracted and emotional litigation to determine the legal surviving spouse. There was a complex international dimension to the case in that the decedent was a Russian immigrant and a citizen of another country who was working in the U.S. on a Green Card, and our client and the former wife were also immigrants and residing in different countries. The Victims' Compensation Fund recently rendered an award that was several hundred thousand dollars greater than initially anticipated. The case was truly a successful result out of exceptionally difficult and tragic circumstances.

Editor: Can you tell us about some of the recent successes you have had in the pro bono arena?

Besunder:
Recent New York pro bono matters have been related to September 11th because there has been an increased demand in that area, but our work is by no means limited to that field. Several attorneys are helping a family-owned business that began to deteriorate when the principal owner died in the World Trade Center tragedy. His wife was not able to save the business, and our people are helping her file a Chapter 7 liquidation and negotiate with the IRS. On another case, our real estate group helped settle a rent dispute in connection with a building located in Battery Park, near the World Trade Center. We also helped another downtown business in a low income area in locating alternative space and negotiating a lease when they were unable to afford the rent in their current location.

Fleischaker: In Washington we have adopted an elementary school in a distressed area. The project includes one-on-one instruction, seminars for the parents and fundraising events, and it is particularly valuable for us because it enables us to bring our administrative and support staff into the picture. Some 20 of our lawyers do intake for the Legal Aid Society on a regular basis. We are generally known as a Gay-friendly firm, and in that context we have been counsel to the Whitman-Walker Clinic, which is the AIDS-related clinic in Washington. We are currently representing a class of women farmers in an action against the Department of Agriculture for failure to advance credit and loan guarantees on a basis equivalent to men. In Maryland we represent a death row inmate. We have represented the U.S. Holocaust Museum for many years, and much of this work is done on an unpaid basis.

Our people are on boards of small non-profit organizations as well as larger ones. At the moment, I am on the governing boards of four public interest organizations. We encourage our attorneys to get involved in this type of activity because it is the small non-profits - as opposed to the celebrated educational institutions and museums in this city - that have the most difficulty in attracting governing board talent. It is also an excellent way for a young attorney to begin to learn something about corporate governance.

Editor: Please tell us about the connection between firm morale and pro bono service.

Fleischaker:
I believe all of our people, whether engaged in pro bono activities or not, take a great deal of pride in the contribution that the firm makes to those who cannot afford to pay for legal services. In addition to providing hands-on experience in important matters, pro bono work results in a great deal of personal satisfaction. Our people feel good about helping those unable to help themselves, and in doing something because it is the right thing to do. In my experience a firm with a strong pro bono program is one with very high firm morale.

Besunder: In addition, pro bono work exposes attorneys to areas of the law that they would not otherwise encounter. That, in turn, enables the attorney to develop a comprehensive and well-rounded knowledge of issues that come into play in any type of case and they know what issues to look for. It helps our attorneys learn to approach any case - whether pro bono or commercial - with a broader and more comprehensive perspective.

Editor: Does pro bono help in recruiting and retaining young attorneys?

Besunder:
Absolutely. Nearly every summer associate, law student or candidate for lateral hire that I have interviewed or spoken to about the firm has indicated an interest in doing pro bono work and asked about specific pro bono efforts. I think the firm's pro bono commitment is a big attraction to attorneys.

Fleischaker: We find that, after they have joined us, the attorneys engaged in pro bono service tend to be happy in their work. I think it is a truism that a happy attorney is much easier for the firm to retain than one who is not.

Editor: You have both made a very substantial commitment to pro bono service. Would you share with our readers what this has meant to you in a personal sense?

Besunder:
Having a direct and positive impact on someone's life, being able to help that person move forward after an unspeakably tragic event, is very fulfilling and a great privilege. It's also an opportunity for every lawyer to honor and give something back to our profession.

Fleischaker: The strong commitment to pro bono service at Arent Fox is one of the things that has kept me here over all these years, as opposed to going to another firm or into government service.

Editor: Is there anything you would like to add?

Fleischaker:
The Association of Corporate Counsel, both nationally and in its local chapters, has been encouraging their members to become more involved in pro bono service and to undertake joint projects with the law firm community whenever possible. We have been involved in such undertakings with some of our clients, and we hope to increase this kind of partnering in the future. I am very hopeful that this will become standard operating procedure as we move forward. Certainly there is more than enough work to go around, and the rewards are very great, for the law firm lawyer and the member of a corporate legal department alike.

Please email the interviewees at Besunder.Alison@arentfox.com or fleischm@arentfox.com with questions about this interview.