Pro Bono Service: A Special Responsibility

Wednesday, December 1, 2004 - 01:00

Editor: Mr. Harris, would you tell us about your background and professional experience?

Harris: I earned my undergraduate and masters degrees at Penn State, and my law degree is from Rutgers. I have been at Lowenstein my entire career since 1979, and at present my practice is concerned with intellectual property, shareholder disputes, and antitrust.

Editor: You have also had a parallel career teaching and writing. How does this connect to your law practice?

Harris: For four years I co-taught antitrust law and the civil trial practice seminar at Rutgers Law School. The articles I have written are usually in connection with some matter I have handled. Pro bono issues have long been a key interest of mine, and I have written both about pro bono policy and a variety of pro bono initiatives. All of these things connect to my practice because they have arisen out of my practice. In addition, teaching and writing about what I do forces me to think about these things in a critical way, and that, I think, helps me be a better lawyer.

Editor: Lowenstein has an enviable reputation for its pro bono work. This did not just happen. Can you tell us about the origins of the program and its evolution?

Harris: Our founder, Alan Lowenstein, set a very high standard from the beginning. At a time when his law firm consisted of four people, he consistently committed one-third of his time to pro bono and community work. As a result - by not only talking about pro bono work, but by undertaking it himself - he instilled a recognition of how important these efforts were in the people around him, and this became part of the firm's culture. As we grew, this pro bono instinct, which so informed the firm's culture, needed to become more formalized. In the early 90s I became chair of the pro bono committee, and my mandate was to develop a more formalized structure for the program in order for it to provide more opportunities for service and more varied types of service as we moved forward. At the same time, this development took place within a very strong pro bono tradition, and the present program is the beneficiary of many years of commitment to the concept of pro bono service, long preceding my modest contributions. I served as chair of the committee for 10 years.

Editor: How does the program function today? Who decides on the projects that the firm undertakes?

Harris: The pro bono committee makes those decisions. Robert Boneberg - whom your publication has interviewed - is the new chair, and he is bringing a great deal of energy and enthusiasm to the position. I continue to serve on the committee. Over the next year I think our pro bono work is going to be more evenly spread across the firm, and the non-litigation work is going to see a dramatic increase. I am hopeful that this will result in a pro bono commitment on the part of the firm that is even more significant than it is today.

Editor: Have you had an opportunity to partner with any of the in-house lawyers from your clients?

Harris: We have on a few occasions, but the project has to be just right if such a partnership is going to be successful. A corporate lawyer who has spent his career advising and counseling on corporate governance and board room issues is not going to be very helpful in a criminal appeal, and a litigator is going to be at somewhat of a loss in obtaining tax-exemption for a non-profit organization. This is an area where projects have to be staffed with a great deal of care.

Editor: Please tell us about some of the significant pro bono initiatives in which you have been engaged.

Harris: There are various police misconduct cases. We have also handled a series of cases with the Education Law Center which involve, for the most part, student discipline issues or the failure of the educational authorities to accommodate students with special needs. We have been working with the New Jersey Institute of Social Justice as well, which attempts to partner with other institutions to build infrastructure in the community. This organization has tried to address housing issues, lending issues and a variety of community economic concerns. We have undertaken similar joint initiatives with other organizations on housing, senior citizens, day care, and the like. We are also handling a number of political asylum cases, and that seems to be an ongoing concern. These are sent to us by an organization called Human Rights First, which screens them before passing them on to us for litigation and appeal.

Editor: Sometimes those cases can be pretty consuming. What do you do where a case may take 1,000 hours of somebody's time?

Harris: That was certainly true of the much-publicized case of childrens' rights and the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services. We put as many people as necessary on the case. The basic principle here - one that governs all of our pro bono work - is that if we take on a pro bono matter, we will handle it in the same manner, and give it the same attention, as a matter for a paying client. Occasionally a matter mushrooms and takes on a great deal more importance than originally anticipated, and that entails addressing it with the full resources that it requires. If we are able to bring in a number of people to share the burden, we try to avoid burdening any one of them excessively.

Editor: And the Lowenstein Fellowship Program in which the firm loans attorneys to the Newark Legal Services Corporation?

Harris: That is something that we established 13 years ago, at a time when this organization needed a great deal of help. We began by taking on individual cases, and over time this developed into a three-month assignment. Today it has become a six-month paid internship. The Lowenstein Fellow has his or her office, and they work as members of the Newark Legal Services staff. This covers mostly housing cases, and always it involves a great deal of responsibility for the attorneys involved. The program has been an enormously successful undertaking, from both our perspective and that of Essex-Newark Legal Services.

Editor: This must be an extraordinary experience for someone only a year or two out of law school.

Harris: As I say, these young lawyers get to do things that they might not handle for years as members of a partner's support group. It is not likely that a first- or second-year associate is going to stand up in court for a paying client, and Lowenstein is no different from any major firm in this regard. One of the consequences of this exceptional introduction to pro bono service is that, occasionally, we lose these people. The experience they have in the pro bono arena is so positive, and they become so committed to it, that they leave the firm to join a legal aid organization or some other public service group. That is not precisely what we had in mind when we set this program up, but I am very gratified to see it generates this extraordinary level of commitment.

Editor: And your work as a mobile lawyer for the Voter Protection Center?

Harris: This was a nationwide program started by People For An American Way. I felt that I could make a contribution. The job of a mobile attorney on election day is to investigate complaints, resolve them if possible, and, if not, take them to court immediately. During this past election, we received a great many complaints from Jersey City, and I spent the day there. In the evening, it was Newark's turn, and I spent the night addressing them. It was an exhilarating, if exhausting, experience.

Editor: A firm's culture and personality are reflected in its pro bono work. Please tell us about the values that Lowenstein is seeking to encourage with this program.

Harris: It is important to remember that we are members of a professional community and, at the same time, members of a larger community. As members of the first group we have a responsibility to the second to see that the doors of justice are open to everyone. That is a way of insisting that every person has a personal dignity, that every person is entitled to the respect that our society's institutions accord its members. The firm's pro bono program attempts to incorporate that perception in all of its projects. Another way of saying this is that lawyers have a very special, and privileged, status in our society, and that status carries with it a special responsibility. It is one that we attempt to meet in our pro bono work, in serving on the governing boards of non-profit organizations, and in any number of civic and community undertakings. What we do is for others, and in serving them we are serving ourselves, our firm and the perception we wish our profession to enjoy.

Editor: Will you share with our readers something about the personal rewards that come from these efforts?

Harris: One of the things that attracted me to Lowenstein in the first place was its commitment to the community. That continues to be a major attraction, and I continue to take great pride in being a member of a firm that has such a reputation for this commitment. The personal rewards? When I go home at night, and my children ask about the cases I've handled, it is not the $20 million verdict that I may have won that I talk about. It's the kid I managed to save from expulsion from school. These are the things that stay with you because they matter so much. The $20 million verdict is, of course, extremely important, but it does not affect the lives of people in the way that pro bono work does. And it does not carry the same emotional rewards.

Please email the interviewee at dharris@lowenstein.com with questions about this interview.