Pro Bono - Law Firms Pro Bono: An Obligation That Derives From Our Concept Of Justice

Thursday, September 1, 2005 - 01:00
Stephen F. Hanlon

Editor: Mr. Hanlon, would you tell our readers something about your career?

Hanlon: I have been practicing law for almost 40 years. Prior to joining Holland & Knight 15 years ago, I was engaged in a wide-ranging civil trial practice. Earlier in my career I spent five years with Bay Area Legal Services Corporation in Tampa.

Editor: What were the things that attracted you to Holland & Knight?

Hanlon: In the 1980s I tried a number of cases against Holland & Knight lawyers, and I came to know and respect them very much. I was also active in the Democratic Party with several of these lawyers. My ties with the firm deepened, and at a certain point we discussed the possibility of my setting up a pro bono department at Holland & Knight. With the guidance of our former managing partner, Bill McBride, in January of 1990, the firm's Community Services Team was established. I have been the full-time partner in charge of the CST ever since.

Editor: Please tell us about the Community Services Team.

Hanlon: From the beginning we wanted to have this practice function as a distinct budgeted and institutionalized practice group in the firm. I am a practice group leader, and I administer the CST pursuant to an approved budget. The team consists of nine people, in addition to myself, who are full-time members. Compared to all other law firms in the country, this constitutes the largest dedicated staff of lawyers exclusively doing pro bono work. The team is spread across the firm's offices, with George Kendall, one of the finest death penalty lawyers in America, in New York; Robin Rosenberg, who heads up our Florida work from St. Petersburg; Chris Nugent, who handles immigration work in Washington, DC; Buddy Schulz, one of the firm's most experienced trial lawyers, in Jacksonville; and Bob Feagin, a former managing partner of the firm, in Tallahassee. Then we have our Chesterfield Smith Fellows, young lawyers who come to us as outstanding recent law graduates or from federal clerkships. They spend their first two years at Holland & Knight doing pro bono work exclusively, and we have four of them at offices around the country.

Editor: Holland & Knight has one of our country's most celebrated law firm pro bono programs. This did not happen in a vacuum. Would you share with us your thoughts about the culture of the firm and the values which have contributed to this remarkable program?

Hanlon: The culture of the law firm was established by our founding partner Chesterfield Smith. From the very beginning of this enterprise, he sowed the seeds of a culture that placed an extraordinary value on the public obligation of a lawyer. That provided a foundation for the program today and - at a time when, in my view, our profession is struggling with a culture of greed - represents, I believe, a standard which speaks to the entire profession. The tone at the top, as set by Chesterfield Smith and maintained ever since by Managing Partners Bill McBride, Bob Feagin and now Howell Melton, acknowledges the importance of making money as a firm goal, but it attempts to place that goal in the larger context of an individual lawyer's and a law firm's historic obligation to provide legal services to those who cannot afford them.

Editor: What are the factors that determine whether or not you will accept a particular case?

Hanlon: I have a two-pronged test: the wonderful scale and the impossible scale. If a matter scores high on both, we'll probably take it. We deliberately seek out cases where we think we can make a contribution and move the law forward. Most of our cases are on referral from advocacy organizations such as the Washington Lawyers Committee or the ACLU National Prison Project. We will co-counsel these cases and we have developed considerable expertise in pulling together an effective team of our lawyers and lawyers from one of the advocacy organizations. Occasionally, a case will come to us directly.

Editor: Does the program have a particular focus or theme?

Hanlon: As the program has evolved, we have developed a very strong interest in cases involving fairness in the administration of the death penalty. That includes both individual and systemic cases, particularly where there is a question about the adequacy of legal counsel.

Given the dramatic increase in the number of people in prison, coupled with a significant decrease in state revenues, we have worked with organizations such as the ACLU Prison Project and the Southern Center for Human Rights on a variety of prison cases.

We are also concerned with the adequacy of the indigent defense systems. We have been engaged in Florida, Mississippi and now Massachusetts to make sure that indigent defense systems are adequately funded and structured.

With Chris Nugent's arrival at the firm, we are doing an enormous amount of immigration work across all of our offices.

We also handle a large volume of work with children in foster care. In Florida we have prosecuted the largest class action case ever certified for children in the custody of the state. It encompassed all children in the foster care system and all children in the juvenile justice system who needed mental health services and were not receiving them.

All together, these constitute our principal themes at present.

Editor: How do the Chesterfield Smith Fellows fit into the Community Services Team?

Hanlon: The Chesterfield Smith Fellows come to us with high law school achievements. Most of them have been through a prestigious federal clerkship as well. For two years they work on the Community Services Team undertakings exclusively. Then, they move into other practice groups within the firm, but they are expected to continue to be part of the firm's pro bono leadership. Needless to say, they are wonderful spokespersons for the team and have had a marvelous impact on the firm's culture.

Editor: Regarding other lawyers across the firm, are you able to draw upon the firm's variety of disciplines and practice groups in staffing your projects?

Hanlon: Absolutely. The full-time staffing we possess only constitutes a third of the manpower needed to handle our cases. Looked at another way, the team's budget is based upon 50 hours of pro bono time per year. Multiplied by 1,200 lawyers, that amounts to 60,000 hours. If we cover 20,000 of this with our full-time CST lawyers, we still have 40,000 to draw upon. And, yes, we are able to draw upon all of the firm's resources - expertise, skills and personnel - in staffing our undertakings, as well as utilizing the technology and infrastructure of the firm.

Editor: Would you tell us about some of your recent undertakings in this arena.

Hanlon: George Kendall's victory in the United States Supreme Court in Banks v. Dretke, 124 S. Ct. 1256 (2004) set aside a death sentence based on egregious serial prosecutorial misconduct. Mr. Banks came within minutes of execution before a stay was issued by the Court. Our own former U.S. District Court Judge William S. Sessions, together with two other former federal judges, filed an important amicus brief in this case.

George also succeeded in convincing a mixed-race jury in Lake Charles, Louisiana, to return a verdict of manslaughter, not murder, in a 1961 homicide case. The defendant, a black man named Wilbert Rideau, had been in prison for 44 years after being convicted of murder. Three times in the last 44 years, murder convictions rendered by all white, all male Louisiana juries had been overturned. The manslaughter conviction meant that Mr. Rideau was immediately released.

Working with the National Prison Project of the ACLU, we filed a challenge to the conditions of confinement on Mississippi's death row, and the trial court found that those conditions violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's opinion. We believe that this is the first successful challenge to conditions of confinement in a death row case in this country.

Working with the Southern Center for Human Rights, we represented all HIV prisoners and all female prisoners in Alabama, and after several years of litigation in each case, we entered into comprehensive settlement agreements with the state, each of which was approved by the trial court.

We are currently representing all indigent criminal defendants and all other indigent people entitled to counsel in civil matters, including children in the foster care system and the juvenile justice system in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. We filed an original action in the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, asserting that the rates of compensation for counsel in these cases were so low that our clients were not receiving effective assistance of counsel. Recently, both houses of the Legislature passed legislation proposing an increase in the rates, but as yet there is no new statute providing relief. We are in the Supreme Judicial Court seeking that court's assistance in achieving a solution to this chronic problem.

We have provided significant pro bono representation to gay asylum seekers and to unaccompanied alien children in our immigration work. Many of our Florida lawyers have filed petitions for prisoners in that state seeking access to DNA evidence which could prove their claims of innocence.

This should give you a pretty good idea of the challenging nature of the work that we do. We expect to be judged by our record of success in prevailing in these kinds of cases.

Editor: Would you share with us your thoughts about the personal rewards of pro bono work?

Hanlon: You know, there are people who believe that there is a business case to be made for pro bono work. I am not one of them. The law is neither a business nor an industry, but rather it is a profession with an historic obligation to provide legal services to those who cannot afford them. That obligation arose at common law centuries ago, where a judge could call an attorney up to the bench and appoint him to represent someone. The obligation is there because attorneys have a monopoly - through their education and training and, ultimately, admission to a special professional caste - on access to the justice system. This is not charitable work. Rather, it is an obligation that is rooted in our obligation to the justice system. On admission to the bar, we take an oath in which we state that we will never reject the cause of the defenseless or the oppressed. At the end of the day, I think that many of the lawyers who make pro bono work an ongoing part of their professional life remember these experiences as among the best in their lives.

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