Pro Bono - Law Firms A Merger Of Two Pro Bono Cultures: A Product Of Leadership At The Top

Monday, August 1, 2005 - 00:00

Editor: Mr. Mikula, would you tell our readers about your professional experience?

Mikula: After graduating from George Washington University Law School and clerking for Judge Phyllis Kravitch of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, I joined Shea & Gardner in Washington, DC in 1985. My work since then has been primarily as a litigator in several areas, including product liability defense, employee health and welfare benefits and insurance coverage and environmental law. In addition, I chaired Shea & Gardner's pro bono committee from 1998 to 2004. In late 2004, Shea & Gardner merged with Goodwin Procter.

Editor: Please tell us about your practice, both billable and pro bono.

Mikula: Shea & Gardner did not have formal departments. As a result, I managed to see just about all of the firm's practice as a young associate. It was a medium-sized firm, but its practice was diverse, particularly in litigation. Over time I gravitated into the areas I mentioned previously. I continue to practice primarily in those areas.

On the pro bono side, I've represented clients in a variety of litigation matters, and I've appeared in modest proceedings before Administrative Law Judges and cases before the United States Supreme Court. More recently, my role has been supervisory, but I do get involved when it is necessary.

Editor: Shea & Gardner and Goodwin Procter have each had a deep commitment to pro bono. How have these two pro bono cultures merged?

Mikula: When we were considering merger options at Shea & Gardner, one of the factors that we considered was a commitment to pro bono. We were very proud of our historic commitment and wanted it to continue. Because of the strong commitment at both firms, the merger of our two cultures was very fluid. Goodwin Procter encouraged the continuation of relationships that Shea & Gardner had developed with various organizations in the Washington, DC area, such as the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, the Bazelon Center for Mental Health, the ACLU and the DC Bar Association's Pro Bono Clinic.

At the same time, Goodwin Procter has provided opportunities for us to develop relationships with organizations with which they have worked over time. We are in the process, for example, of discussing how we may support the work of the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty, which has a longstanding relationship with Goodwin Procter's New York office. The Center's headquarters are in Washington, however, which serves to facilitate the relationship with this office.

Editor: What were the steps that were taken to blend the two pro bono efforts?

Mikula: As with almost everything concerning pro bono work, leadership at the top was crucial. The management of the two firms wanted to make sure that the integration of the two pro bono cultures was a priority. The merger orientation meetings included segments on pro bono. In addition, I became a member of Goodwin Procter's Pro Bono Committee and began to work with Bill Mayer, one of the Boston partners and head of the Committee, and Carolyn Rosenthal, Goodwin Procter's Pro Bono Manager, on a regular basis. We have had a couple of opportunities to engage in cross-office staffing for some of our pro bono matters, and we are trying to identify a signature project that will permit us to do more of it.

Editor: How is the firm's pro bono program structured?

Mikula: There is a firmwide policy on pro bono that governs the activities of all of our offices, but each office has been encouraged to continue to develop its own relationships and to work with the organizations it has worked with historically. Each office has a certain amount of autonomy, although all of the matters that our attorneys handle must be approved by the Pro Bono Committee.

Editor: How can pro bono be a successful tool for ensuring a successful merger?

Mikula: Pro bono activities constitute an excellent means for lawyers from across all of the firm's offices to come together to engage in very worthwhile projects. They get to know one another, and, of course, appreciate the expertise and skills their colleagues bring to these undertakings. The cross-office staffing that results in this type of interaction serves to enhance a firmwide culture and sense of pride.

Editor: Does the firm give credit for pro bono work against an associate's billable hours expectations?

Mikula: Yes. Goodwin Procter gives full credit for all pro bono work.

Editor: How do you handle situations where a project becomes a major undertaking and entails more time than initially anticipated?

Mikula: Pro bono work is treated in the same way as billable matters. This means, of course, that the firm will devote the necessary resources to all of the projects it undertakes. We have been in many situations where a matter is taking far more time than originally contemplated, and the first thing we have done is look for additional help. We have always been able to find the extra support necessary to ensure that the job is done correctly.

Editor: Does the existence of an extensive pro bono program help in recruiting recent law school graduates and young laterals?

Mikula: Definitely. Over the years I have interviewed a great many people looking to join a firm. Candidates almost always express great interest in our pro bono program, and I try to give them as much information as possible. A good pro bono program says a great deal about the firm's culture and about the things on which it places value. It also evidences the opportunities that a young lawyer can expect at the firm. Very often young lawyers must wait a long time to see major responsibility in their particular practice area. A strong pro bono program invariably introduces young lawyers to real responsibility at an early stage in their careers and serves to accelerate their professional growth.

Editor: Does the firm partner with other organizations in these efforts?

Mikula: We have partnered with a number of organizations over the years. We have had staff in Washington work at the DC Bar Association Clinic for about ten years, for example. Other partnering relationships are more ad hoc in nature, but they are ongoing. We would like to have the opportunity to partner with the law department of a firm client.

Editor: Would you tell us about some of your pro bono undertakings?

Mikula: Denver Area Consortium v. FCC was a case we won in the United States Supreme Court after losing in the DC Circuit Court. It was a constitutional challenge to various sections of the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992, in which Congress gave cable operators editorial authority - censorship rights - over public access programming. We represented a number of organizations challenging the statute and related regulations. The Supreme Court acted to strike down the offending portions of the statute.

In Winters v. Ridley we were appointed to represent a large number of prisoners who had been convicted of first degree murder. They were trying to shorten the minimum term for their sentence, which was 20 years to life. A DC statute allowed for "good behavior" time to be credited against a prisoner's sentence, and the question was whether it applied to convicted murderers. I wrote the brief and argued the case before the DC Circuit and then the DC Court of Appeals.

Editor: And your work to reform the DC foster care system?

Mikula: That was a case where we co-counseled with the DC ACLU and Children's Rights, Inc. in an action before the U.S. Supreme Court against the DC government. Our clients sought broad reforms in the foster care system. That case ultimately resulted in a consent decree, but the DC government went on to appeal a number of jurisdictional issues. We successfully opposed certiorari in the Supreme Court.

Editor: How about the International Human Rights Group in Nigeria?

Mikula: We acted as co-counsel with the International Human Rights Law Group in preparing an amicus brief filed in a Bivens- type action in Nigeria. This was on behalf of a young man whose family had been killed through extrajudicial execution by a number of government officials. The lawsuit sought compensation, and our brief drew upon a variety of precedents in U.S. and international law on similar causes of action. After we filed the brief, the defendants settled the case.

Editor: How about the implementation of international human rights treaties in the U.S.?

Mikula: The Lawyer's Committee for Human Rights publishes a quadrennial report on the state of international human rights. In 1996, we wrote a section of that report on the implementation of various human rights treaties in the United States. At the outset of this undertaking I was of the opinion that the U.S. possessed fully developed civil rights and statutes in place for the implementation of international human rights treaties. That is not always the case, however. We made a number of recommendations concerning situations where U.S. law does not conform to international law.

Editor: All of this is pretty extensive. How do you balance it with your private practice?

Mikula: Primarily by getting lots of help. In recent years, as I previously mentioned, most of the work I have done is of a supervisory nature. I will dig in if that is necessary, but these activities have been spread out over many years.

Editor: What rewards derive from this activity?

Mikula: They are many. We work with many top-notch lawyers at various non-profit and community organizations. They are strongly committed to their causes, and while they might have done very well in private practice, their decision to take an alternative path is something of an inspiration for me and for others who engage in these activities as only a part of our professional life. In addition, the clients that you encounter in pro bono work are greatly appreciative of your efforts. It is not often in private practice that you have the satisfaction of having helped someone in a deeply personal way.

Editor: Would you comment on the connection between pro bono work and the firm's morale?

Mikula: This work greatly enhances firm morale. It provides young associates with an opportunity to take control of their cases, to argue in court and to do a variety of things that usually come only after years of careful preparation and patience. Above all, however, pro bono work leaves you with the thought that you have made a real difference in someone's life and that, but for you, that person might never have received the justice to which he was entitled.

Please email the interviewee at tmikula@goodwinprocter.com with questions about this interview.