Pro Bono - Law Firms " . . . Part Of The Fabric Of Who We Are As A Firm"

Monday, August 1, 2005 - 01:00

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

Kappelhoff: I recently joined Akin Gump from the Department of Justice, where I was the principal deputy chief of the Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division. Prior to joining the DOJ, I served as the American Civil Liberties Union's legislative counsel for civil rights and criminal justice. I began my legal career as an assistant public defender in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Coyle: I came here following law school. Before entering law school I worked in refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines through the UN High Commission on Refugees. I am a partner in the litigation section and recently became the firm's pro bono partner.

Editor: Would you share with us the things that attracted you to Akin Gump?

Kappelhoff: The principal factors were the firm's outstanding reputation in the legal community and its strong commitment to pro bono and public service work. I was grateful to have the unique opportunity to continue my career as a public interest lawyer with a law firm that has a long tradition of providing legal service to those in our communities with the greatest need.

Coyle: I was looking for complex and challenging litigation, but I did not wish to give up the opportunity to serve needy individual clients. In encouraging pro bono and public service work, the firm combined these two themes for me. In addition, I saw wonderful opportunities to work with and learn from people dedicated to excellence in client service and in public service.

Editor: Would you describe your practice. How has it evolved over the course of your career?

Kappelhoff: I began my career as a public interest lawyer and have largely continued on that path throughout my legal career. After law school, I worked as a public defender in Maryland, where I represented indigent clients charged with criminal offenses, including a death penalty case. From there, I worked on Capitol Hill as a legislative counsel for the ACLU. I then began my career at the Department of Justice as a trial attorney in the Environmental Crimes Section. I eventually joined the Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division, where I prosecuted and supervised criminal civil rights cases involving racial violence, law enforcement misconduct and human trafficking. Throughout my legal career, I have taught a number of public interest and criminal justice courses at area law schools.

Coyle: I have been engaged in litigation from the start. I was a general litigator for a time, then handled toxic tort work, and today divide my time between intellectual property and complex commercial litigation.

Editor: Akin Gump's commitment to pro bono work goes back many years. Would you tell us something about the origin of this commitment and its development over the years?

Coyle: The commitment to pro bono work goes back to the founding of the firm in 1945. We are a first-generation law firm, and all of our name partners were at some point involved in public service. When they formed the firm, they brought that individual personal commitment to helping others to their collective enterprise. Over the years they have encouraged everyone to get involved in pro bono work, and this has become part of the fabric of who we are as a firm.

Kappelhoff: That leadership is continued by Bruce McLean, Akin Gump's chairman, who is committed to public service and performed over 120 hours of pro bono work last year. He was part of the group supporting the Access to Justice Commission in Washington. That kind of leadership is indicative of what the future holds for the firm in this arena.

Coyle: The same commitment is held by our department heads and practice group leaders. Because of the tone set at the top, and ways in which the leadership's commitment has been translated into practical support for pro bono initiatives, the pro bono culture at Akin Gump will continue to be at the heart of how the firm defines itself.

Editor: How is the program structured? Is there a single policy that extends to all of the firm's offices or does each office have its own operation?

Coyle: We have a firm-wide policy for accounting for hours, intake, conflicts and evaluation. We are also integrated for training and staffing, but the focus of each office is driven by its particular preference. Where one group may focus on children's issues, another may emphasize death penalty cases. Each office has a committee comprising volunteers from every section of the firm, so that pro bono opportunities are spread across all of the firm's practice groups. The leaders of the office committees participate on a firm-wide committee that is charged with setting policy and goals for the entire firm.

Editor: You mention firm-wide staffing. Can one office draw upon the expertise and personnel of another office?

Coyle: Absolutely. Our pro bono model is the same as our model for paying clients: when a case comes in, we look for the best people to work on it regardless of their location.

Editor: You indicated that you try to spread the work across a variety of practice groups. Pro bono has plenty of opportunities for litigators, but that may not be the case for transactional lawyers. How do you handle this?

Coyle: Our transactional groups have been very active in getting their people involved. One very successful tack is utilizing their relationships with various nonprofit organizations situated in the cities where the firm has its offices. These organizations have a multitude of needs with respect to real estate, labor and employment, corporate governance, tax exemption and general business advice, and it has not been difficult for us to generate a substantial flow of non-litigation work. These nonprofits have a contact in each of our practice groups, which helps to keep the relationship - and the flow of pro bono work - in a healthy state.

Editor: Would each of you share with our readers some of the highlights of your pro bono career?

Kappelhoff: Much of my legal career has been in public and government service. The highlights include serving as co-counsel in a death penalty case in which we obtained a life sentence for our client. As a prosecutor at the Department of Justice, two particular cases stand out: In a racial violence case, I prosecuted three avowed racists who burned a cross on the front yard of an African-American family's home, and I supervised and assisted in the prosecution of the largest human trafficking case ever brought by the Department of Justice.

Coyle: I worked on a predatory lending case in Washington involving an older woman, suffering from dementia, who had transferred her house to a lender without any payment. We brought suit and recovered the house and some damages. That allowed her to be placed in a home near her children that provided appropriate medical care. Another highlight involved a woman who had fled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and sought asylum. We obtained refugee status for her. She is now a doctor.

Editor: And the firm's current pro bono projects? Can you provide us with an overview of some of the things that are currently underway?

Coyle: Several of our offices partner with schools in low-income neighborhoods to provide both legal work for the school and non-legal work, including mentoring, participating in clinics for parents, etc. Lawyers and staff alike are involved in these partnerships.

We are also looking at partnerships with public defenders on death penalty cases. We have established a relationship with a public defender's office in South Carolina. We have tried three death penalty cases in the past several years and are beginning a fourth. We are also starting to partner with various legal committees dealing with civil rights in the cities where the firm is located.

We are also working to expand our pro bono appellate practice. This past year we wrote briefs for two cases in the Supreme Court: Roper v. Simmons, where the Court ended the execution of juvenile defenders, and Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, which said that enemy combatants could not be held indefinitely without due process. We are proud of our participation in these cases, and we continue to seek matters that we can bring to the Supreme Court's attention.

Editor: Does the firm count pro bono hours toward an associate's expectation of billable hours?

Coyle: Yes. There is no limit on the number of pro bono hours a person can work. We have a suggested minimum of the greater of 50 hours or 3 percent of a lawyer's billable time. Pro bono and community involvement are factors in attorney evaluations.

Editor: How do you handle the situation where a pro bono project begins to consume much more time than originally anticipated?

Coyle: The same way we handle this situation for paying clients. We give it the attention and staffing it needs to bring it to a successful conclusion.

Editor: Has the firm ever engaged in joint undertakings with the legal department of a firm client?

Coyle: Yes. We are working with Blue Cross/Blue Shield in Pennsylvania on guardianships and other children's issues. We are just about to start working with Valero Energy in San Antonio on the staffing of legal clinics. This enables our lawyers and their in-house colleagues to work together on some very worthwhile matters and to develop good relationships outside of the usual setting.

Editor: Can you comment on the connection between the pro bono program and firm morale?

Coyle: A direct relationship exists between the two. Our associates working on pro bono cases frequently say, "This is why I went to law school." The associates are very anxious to become involved in pro bono work at an early point in their career. Pro bono gives them professional experiences that might not otherwise be available at a junior level. We have first-year associates in court arguing motions, making strategy decisions and forming tax-exempt corporations. The availability of this kind of personal and professional experience greatly increases firm morale.

Kappelhoff: The rewards of pro bono work are unlimited. As lawyers, we have a special obligation to make our expertise and skills available to those who, for whatever reason, are on the margins of society and are unable to gain justice through our legal system. The legal profession offers us an opportunity to serve others and to make a difference. Meeting that obligation is a source of great pride and satisfaction, and that, of course, is the basis of very high morale.

Editor: What about the future? Are there any new areas of pro bono work that the firm is considering?

Coyle: There are at least five areas that would be relatively new for us. We are focusing on issues relating to gender violence, human trafficking and the death penalty. We are talking with civil rights groups about the Voting Rights Act and its enforcement. And, of course, we are anxious to expand our U.S. Supreme Court practice. This is not to say that these matters are going to supplant the custody, asylum and immigration, nonprofit organization support, school mentoring and other matters that we have handled for many years. These matters continue to attract widespread support from across the firm.

Editor: Is there anything you would like to add?

Coyle: There are several key factors that have been important in building our pro bono practice: First, we have a proven commitment from the partnership and the leaders of the firm to support pro bono work. Second, we have both formal and informal training programs in the substantive areas in which we take on cases. Finally, we have exceptionally talented and dedicated attorneys and staff who are devoted to improving the lives of the less fortunate.

Please email the interviewees at ccoyle@akingump.com and mkappelhoff@akingump.com with questions about this article.