Pro Bono - Law Firms Taking Pro Bono To The Next Level

Monday, August 1, 2005 - 01:00

Editor: Would each of you tell our readers something about your professional experience?

Slater: I went to Cornell University and Fordham Law School. I have been with Nixon Peabody since I graduated 10 years ago. I am a litigator by background, and this month I was appointed to a new position at Nixon Peabody as the firm's Pro Bono Partner.

Durant: I split my practice between litigation and health care. I handle complex commercial litigation and health care and regulatory compliance matters, with a focus on HIPAA.

Schopf: I have been a litigator for about 20 years, with a primary focus on commercial litigation and in the area of insurance coverage disputes.

Editor: How did you come to Nixon Peabody? What was it that attracted you to the firm?

Slater: I had heard very good things about the firm - bright people and very interesting work - at the time I was interviewing. The firm also had a strong commitment to pro bono, which was very important to me.

Durant: I joined the firm as a lateral eight years ago because of its high level of practice. The firm is engaged in very complicated, very sophisticated litigation, which was a big attraction, as were its core values and the people associated with it.

Schopf: My group was part of Nixon Peabody's expansion into San Francisco. Both sides of the merger were looking for cultures supportive of a broad variety of practices, for collegiality, and for a grounded commitment to community involvement. It has been a terrific fit.

Editor: Each of you has spent a considerable amount of time engaged in pro bono activities. What got you started down this path?

Slater: My interest in giving back to the community started in law school. I helped to found the Battered Womens' Advocacy Project at Fordham Law School, and early on in my career I worked on behalf of victims of domestic violence. I found that through this work, I was really making a difference in my clients' lives, which was incredibly satisfying.

Durant: I got started in pro bono work through the Women's Bar Association just after law school, and I am now a past president of the organization. Over the years, I have been engaged in very rewarding projects which have had the added benefit of being very different from the things I do for paying clients. The strong pro bono culture I have found at Nixon Peabody is something that has been instrumental in supporting my pro bono career.

Schopf: I have always believed that community involvement was both an obligation for a lawyer and a personally satisfying experience. Having had pro bono experience in my former firm, when I moved to Nixon Peabody I was asked to coordinate the San Francisco office's pro bono program. I looked upon this as a significant opportunity to get others involved.

Editor: Can you tell us about some of the high points of your pro bono career?

Slater: In the past few years, I have represented a monk from Tibet, young men from Sudan and the Republic of Congo, and a young woman from Gambia, each of whom were persecuted in their home countries and, had they been deported, would have faced arrest, torture and possibly death. Winning asylum on their behalf was the high point of my pro bono career.

Durant: I have represented a variety of individuals who were victims of domestic violence. Being able to provide both legal and emotional support and guide through what, for them, is a very frightening courtroom experience is deeply rewarding. It represents a very small investment of my time, but one with an extraordinary return in terms of the impact it makes on a person's life.

Schopf: Some of the most rewarding experiences I have had were early in my career and involved evening counseling sessions for people with a variety of legal challenges. Trying to guide people through such a thicket of issues was something of a humbling experience, but always fascinating and very rewarding at the same time.

Editor: Ms. Slater, you have just become Nixon Peabody's Pro Bono Partner. What factors went into the decision to create such a position?

Slater: Asking me to manage the firm's pro bono program as my sole responsibility was a natural progression in the development of our pro bono program, and really demonstrates the firm's deep commitment to pro bono. The firm's management wanted to take steps to increase the lawyers' participation in the program, and to involve the firm in new and exciting pro bono initiatives such as partnering on pro bono projects with clients.

Editor: How is the firm's program structured?

Slater: We have a set of written pro bono guidelines, which include the firm's definition of pro bono and apply to all of our offices. We also have a Pro Bono Committee, with at least one partner from most of our offices, which meets on a regular basis.

Editor: How do you go about deciding what projects to take on?

Slater: If a lawyer comes to his or her local Pro Bono Partner with a project, and it meets our pro bono definition (which mirrors that of the ABA), that request will usually be granted, assuming that lawyer's practice group leader approves the matter and there is no conflict with another client. To qualify as "pro bono," the work must entail legal services to the indigent, to non-profit organizations that serve the indigent, or as advancing the discussion on societal issues or significant legal issues. Going forward, I would like to work with the Committee to promulgate a set of issues on which we think the program should focus. However, we would not turn someone away with a worthy pro bono case that does not involve one of those issues.

Schopf: Many of our offices work with volunteer legal service providers (VLSPs). They serve as screening agents for the pro bono programs that support them. They also provide valuable training services for the lawyers in such programs and coordinate the pro bono efforts of a variety of firms. Their experience is valuable in helping us determine which projects are most appropriate.

Editor: How do you handle the situation where a pro bono project begins to consume more of the firm's resources than originally anticipated?

Slater: The firm is as fully committed to pro bono clients as it is to paying clients. The ethical obligations are the same. At the outset, we try to anticipate the amount of time a project will take, but regardless, we will do whatever is necessary to see the matter through. We encourage our lawyers to form teams to handle many of these projects, so that the work is spread across a number of people and no one person shoulders the responsibility of a project that takes more time than expected.

Editor: How do you go about spreading pro bono opportunities across the various disciplines and practice groups of the firm?

Durant: In our Boston office, for example, we had a Pro Bono Fair to initially launch and promote our pro bono initiative. We invited numerous local organizations to make presentations, and the exercise convinced us that there are a great many pro bono opportunities for lawyers who are not litigators. Homelessness and low income housing issues, estate planning services for people with HIV/AIDS, a whole range of corporate services for non-profit organizations - there are many needs to be met outside the litigation arena.

Schopf: The VLSP of the San Francisco Bar Association has helped to place firms into partnership situations with non-profit organizations for purposes of transactional work. We, for example, work with the East Bay Habitat for Humanity on a whole range of corporate and real estate needs.

Slater: In the New York office, we have also had several organizations come to speak to our lawyers about a variety of pro bono opportunities that are available to litigators as well as transactional lawyers. I would like to stress that pro bono is not just for litigators - there are a great many opportunities for transactional lawyers as well. In fact, one organization, the Lawyers Alliance for New York, refers solely transactional work to us.

Editor: Have you been able to partner with other organizations in pro bono undertakings?

Slater: We have been partnering with a variety of other organizations. For example, in New York City we have handled many cases from Human Rights First, and in Rochester we are referred many cases from the Volunteer Legal Services Project. Most of our offices have special relationships with outside organizations. In addition, going forward, we intend to approach in-house counsel of some of our firm clients when the right partnering opportunities arise.

Editor: Please tell us about the connection between pro bono work and firm morale. Do you ascribe to the view that pro bono work makes for a better lawyer?

Slater: Attorneys that perform pro bono work seem to have greater job satisfaction because they are able to use their legal skills to really impact change on behalf of individuals. This certainly helps to improve lawyers' morale, particularly when they see that the firm recognizes and appreciates their pro bono work. I should mention that pro bono work also presents excellent training opportunities to young lawyers, who are generally able to deal with pro bono clients directly and assume a greater responsibility, which also is a great morale builder.

Durant: We involve our summer associates in pro bono projects, and they take to the personal interaction with a client - we tell them that this is their client - with enormous energy and intensity. They come away with the sense of having really been in charge of a legal matter and, even better, one that has served to benefit someone in a very personal way. There is no way to describe how that contributes to their sense of accomplishment.

Schopf: The opportunity to work with others toward a common goal is also a very meaningful aspect of pro bono work. This is a top-down commitment, and the leadership of the firm sets an example that resonates across the entire organization. There is great cooperation among the various practice groups and offices of the firm, and I think that much of the extremely high morale that results from this activity derives from helping others and doing so within an organization that demonstrates the high value it places upon such activity.

Slater: Nixon Peabody's management has been extraordinarily supportive of our efforts to take our pro bono program to the next level. A pro bono culture can only thrive when the right tone is set at the top. At Nixon Peabody, the firm leadership has made a strong statement in support of pro bono, and I am certain that a successful program is going to be the inevitable result.

Please email the interviewees at ldurant@nixonpeabody.com, gschopf@nixonpeabody.com or sslater@nixonpeabody.com with questions about this interview.