Pro Bono - Law Firms Pro Bono Advocacy: An Immense, And Direct, Benefit To Society

Monday, August 1, 2005 - 01:00

Editor: Ms. Ottaviano, would you tell our readers something about your professional background?

Ottaviano: I have been in DC since I graduated from college in 1986. I was initially attracted to the city because of the political atmosphere. After several years as a staffer for a Kansas Congressman, I enrolled at Georgetown University Law Center. I started at Arent Fox as a summer associate in 1991, a year before graduating from law school, and have been here ever since.

Editor: What attracted you to Arent Fox?

Ottaviano: I was attracted to the firm because I felt that associates were permitted to assume considerable responsibility at an early stage. I wanted hands-on experience right away, and I was not disappointed.

Editor: Please tell us about your practice. How has it evolved over the course of your career?

Ottaviano: I started doing environmental and products liability work for trade associations in the forest products industry, and I continue to work for these organizations as well as those in other industries. This includes handling disputes with insurance companies over coverage. I also act as general counsel for a number of trade associations and non-profit organizations, which entails doing a little of everything.

Editor: In addition to your very active practice, you have had a parallel career in the pro bono arena. Please tell us some of the highlights of your pro bono career.

Ottaviano: I started on a substantial pro bono matter in 1994 - one of the early environmental justice cases - involving an African American community in Pensacola, Florida that was overburdened with pollution and toxicity. Many members of the community, which was located between two Superfund sites and six operating industrial facilities, were ill, and we believed that the best thing that could happen was for the EPA to dictate the relocation of the community. Ultimately, the EPA agreed. That was my introduction to pro bono work, and it remains one of the highlights.

Editor: As chair of Arent Fox's pro bono committee, you are at the head of a program that has an outstanding reputation. What is the origin of the program?

Ottaviano: Pro bono and public service have always been important to our firm's founders and to its leadership. Al Arent worked with the Kennedy Administration to help form the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. This is a large organization comprised of members of the private bar which handles all types of civil rights issues, and many Arent Fox attorneys have been involved in its leadership. We also have relationships that go back for many years with the DC Legal Aid Society, the Whitman Walker Clinic, the Holocaust Museum, and many other large charitable, educational and healthcare organizations. We work in a great many areas of the law, and our cases cover civil rights, disability rights, the death penalty, immigrant rights and domestic violence, among many others.

Editor: Does the program have a particular focus?

Ottaviano: We try to follow the definition of the Pro Bono Institute in deciding which cases to take, which means that we emphasize cases for the indigent or organizations that serve the indigent, though such organizations may do that by focusing on domestic violence, civil rights, immigrant detainee or other matters.

Editor: How do you go about selecting pro bono projects?

Ottaviano: The pro bono legal services organizations with which we work refer cases to us on a regular basis, and they also provide us with their priorities in terms of test cases and so on. In addition, many of our attorneys are involved in community activities, and they have causes they wish to advance. We have no trouble finding matters that are worthy of our attention. We just need to choose our commitments carefully so our pro bono clients get our full attention.

Editor: Speaking of staffing, there are usually plenty of opportunities for litigators, but finding matters for, say, transactional lawyers can be something of a challenge.

Ottaviano: I think we have done a particularly good job in this regard, in part because we have a strong non-profit organization practice, both billable and pro bono, and that has provided us with many opportunities on the transactional side. In but one example, eight of our transactional lawyers have been working with St. Coletta of Greater Washington on a project to establish a school for intensive special education in the District of Columbia. This school has been operating very successfully in Virginia for a number of years, while the District has been unable to provide adequate special education for its residents. This project is just about completed. Similarly, our real estate practice has been engaged in a great deal of leasing work for a number of organizations providing legal services to the impoverished. The purpose is to help these organizations bring their services to underserved populations. We have also set up programs in which our attorneys handle intake for a legal service organization. Our people will dedicate one day a month to sit with walk-in clients and summarize their stories for the organization's staff, who then determine whether to take the matter on in a litigation context. The intake experience is invaluable for our attorneys, and it does not require litigation expertise.

Editor: Does the firm credit pro bono hours against an associate's billable hours expectation?

Ottaviano: Yes. Typically, attorneys receive up to 150 hours of pro bono credit towards their target. There are many attorneys who become involved in cases where they need more than 150 hours, so we have a process which results in a waiver of the 150-hour limit. About 10 percent of our associates take advantage of this process. Overall, partners and associates average about 70 hours of pro bono work each year, which is well ahead of both the national average and the ABA target. There is a firm-wide understanding that pro bono is important and that everyone should participate.

Editor: Please tell us about some of the recent pro bono matters the firm has handled.

Ottaviano: For several years we have represented James Matthew Hyde, who was convicted of first degree murder for a shooting that took place when he was 17. The jury initially recommended that he be sentenced to life without parole. The judge overruled them and gave him the death penalty. That was the basis of our appeal for a number of years, but this year the United States Supreme Court made the determination that it is unconstitutional to execute anyone who committed a murder as a juvenile. As a consequence, we are now working on getting him off Alabama's death row and on commuting his sentence to life. The attorneys working on this case, led by Caroline English, have been committed to the representation of juveniles on death row for many years.

We have teamed with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law to represent a group of women farmers denied farm loans by the USDA based on their gender. We argue systematic discrimination of women farmers by officials in local USDA offices, and we have been trying to get class certification so we can represent them nationally. We are in the process of appealing the district court denial of class certification.

We represent the Whitman Walker Clinic in a variety of matters. They provide healthcare to people living with HIV and AIDS in the DC area. Our attorneys do intake work for walk-in clients of the Clinic, and we also have lawyers and legal assistants representing individual clients who have been denied Social Security disability benefits or otherwise discriminated against on the basis of their HIV/AIDS status.

We have been providing assistance to a few organizations who serve the needs of terminally ill patients. One of our New York attorneys, Connie Raffa, led a team whose efforts have resulted in the passage of a statute in New York supporting the care of terminally ill patients.

The Georgetown International Women's Human Rights Clinic had one of our associates go to Uganda to supervise a team of law students on a human rights fact finding mission. This involved documenting the practice of female genital mutilation. It was a disturbing trip, but it resulted in the Ugandan government passing legislation to ban the practice.

Another death penalty case is on behalf of John Booth, a Maryland inmate. We are challenging the court's failure to consider mitigating factors that were permitted under Maryland sentencing law at the time he was sentenced, although not today. Our argument is that, in failing to consider all mitigating factors at the time, the court erred by entering a sentence of death.

Editor: Have you found that a strong pro bono program is helpful in recruiting recent law school graduates and young laterals?

Ottaviano: I think it is. Pro bono activities constitute one of the things that gets young attorneys interested in a firm, and, in our case, a commitment to pro bono and to a range of opportunities that permit lawyers from across the entire spectrum of our profession to make a contribution is one of the ways in which we differentiate ourselves from other large firms. Young attorneys are aware that in Arent Fox's pro bono program they are going to play leading roles at a much earlier stage than they will on billable matters. They look forward to great experience and great training, and, of course, they have an expectation of being able to take great pride in helping someone in need.

Editor: Have you found that the program contributes to firm morale?

Ottaviano: Definitely. Handling matters of immense importance - the adoption of a child, the lifting of a deportation order, getting someone off of death row - for people unable to afford legal services results in enormous job satisfaction. A lawyer who has made such a contribution feels good about what he or she has done and about the culture of the firm that has supported their efforts. All of that translates into very high firm morale. And it permeates the entire firm because everyone is involved, from the entry-level first-year associates up to the senior rungs of the partnership. In the case of the latter, we have many active senior partners who have been engaged in pro bono activity for a very long time. I do not think that would be the case if they did not continue to feel very good about it.

The quality of representation that we are able to bring to particular issues - say, to those of the poverty law arena - transforms the ways in which our justice system addresses those issues. That advocacy is of immense, and direct, benefit to society. I think everyone who is a part of Arent Fox, and whether they are directly involved in pro bono efforts or not, is intensely proud of that contribution. At Arent Fox firm morale is very high.

Please email the interviewee at ottaviano.deanne@arentfox.com with questions about this interview.