Pro Bono - Law Firms Partnering In the Pro Bono Arena: Matching Up Different Strengths

Thursday, September 1, 2005 - 01:00

The Editor interviews Jenny R. Kramer, Lowenstein Sandler PC, and Erika L. Wood, The Legal Action Center, New York, New York.

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

Wood: I am a staff attorney at The Legal Action Center in New York City. I graduated from Rutgers Law School in Newark in 1999. After law school, I clerked for Judge Steven Skillman of the Appellate Division and then worked for a small employment discrimination firm in New York before coming to the Legal Action Center in 2001.

Kramer: I graduated from Seton Hall Law School in 2001. I was a summer associate here at Lowenstein and returned as a full-time associate following graduation.

Editor: Ms. Kramer, would you share with us the factors that attracted you to Lowenstein?

Kramer: I interviewed with a number of law firms, but what attracted me to Lowenstein in particular was, among other things, its commitment to pro bono work. For example, Lowenstein offers a fellowship at Essex-Newark Legal Services, where associates can work there for six months and help those in need, usually tenants faced with imminent eviction. The atmosphere at Lowenstein is also a great draw. The firm's culture, the open door policy and a very congenial group of people serve to make this a very special place, particularly for a law firm of this size. I was also exposed to courtroom experience from my arrival as a first-year associate, which is very unusual. The firm is sensitive to the concerns of associates and tries to match them with cases with which they will thrive.

Editor: Ms. Wood, please tell us about The Legal Action Center. What is its mission?

Wood: The Center is a nonprofit public interest law firm. We have offices in New York and Washington, DC which specialize in legal and policy issues relating to those with HIV/AIDS, criminal records and addiction histories. The Center provides a variety of services, including litigation, policy advocacy and education.

Editor: The two of you have worked together recently in what is the first known case in the country challenging a private adoption agency's refusal to provide services to a couple because one of them is HIV-positive. For starters, how did Lowenstein and the Center come together on this matter?

Wood: The Center sought the help of the ABA Litigation Assistance Partnership Program (LAPP). Inasmuch as I am the only attorney in the office admitted in New Jersey, we were looking for New Jersey experience and expertise to help with the case. LAPP contacted Lowenstein, which agreed to work with us.

Editor: Please give us the background on this case. Why did you find this particular case so compelling?

Wood: For many Americans, HIV has become a part of life. It is a chronic illness that, properly addressed, is manageable. Increasingly, HIV-positive individuals are receiving early treatment that permits them to lead productive lives. The adoption application here should have been evaluated on the basis of whether these applicants were fit to be parents rather than rejected outright on the basis of outdated misconceptions concerning HIV/AIDS. I believe that this case is going to have an enormous impact on people living with HIV because adoption may be the only safe way for couples which include an HIV-positive spouse to have children.

The case was initially filed by the Center in Essex County Superior Court, and settlement discussions were underway prior to the legal arguments being made. After Lowenstein Sandler became involved, the case was settled early in the pre-trial discovery process.

Kramer: The long-term emotional and societal impact of discrimination can be devastating. We believe that the couple in this case was vindicated, and our hope is that the result of this litigation will not only resonate deeply within the adoption agency community but effectuate a sea change regarding our society's treatment of those who are HIV-positive.

Editor: You both mention the implications of the case. While the settlement constituted a very positive result for the couple concerned, it does not represent a judicial precedent. What about the next time an adoption agency takes this stand?

Wood: One of the main reasons we negotiated a public apology on the part of the agency was to spread the word and inform people that this is going on and that it is not to be tolerated. Some of the most important advances in the law take place as a consequence of a settlement that is widely reported in the press. We trust that the way this case was resolved will work as a deterrent in the future.

Editor: One of the themes of our publication is partnering between law firm lawyers and lawyers who work full time in the public interest. Ms. Wood, is this type of relationship - I mean with a law firm - usual with the Center?

Wood: We try to partner with private law firms on our larger cases, those that are going to require a considerable investment of time. The participation of the firm is invaluable. Their resources in terms of expertise and personnel are impressive. This assistance often allows us to litigate important cases which we may not otherwise have the resources to bring.

Editor: How do you go about dividing up the work?

Kramer: From the beginning, Erika and I worked on an ad hoc, informal basis. We developed a good working relationship immediately, and we were each quite flexible when it came to dividing up assignments. If something lent itself to a division of responsibility, a brief discussion was all that was necessary to complete the task at hand. Having a good relationship with your co-counsel in a case like this is one of the things that underlies success.

Editor: Each of you brings different resources to a matter of this kind. How do you use each other's strengths to best advantage?

Wood: The Center has years of experience litigating HIV discrimination and confidentiality cases, and we have represented many people in overcoming illegal and irrational HIV-based discrimination in employment, access to health care and other vital services. In this particular case, however, we had almost no experience navigating the New Jersey legal system. What Jenny and Lowenstein brought us was the ability to move into and through that system with confidence and skill, drawing upon the resources of a nationally recognized law firm.

Kramer: The partnership between Lowenstein and the Center, proved to be a great combination of different strengths - the Center's great depth of experience in a very particular area of the law and Lowenstein's equally extraordinary experience in the arena in which we were litigating - and the results were very positive.

Editor: Ms. Kramer, would you tell us something about Lowenstein's pro bono program?

Kramer: The program has been an extremely rewarding experience for me. As a result of the program, I have been able to advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves in both civil rights and criminal defense matters. The program has enabled me to help people and to gain extensive court experience, both of which I find to be very rewarding. Lowenstein Sandler is very supportive of these efforts, and encourages associates to participate.

Editor: Does Lowenstein take on matters that would utilize the skills of attorneys who are not litigators?

Kramer: Yes. While I am a litigator, pro bono initiatives extend across the firm and to just about all of our different disciplines and practice groups. Our corporate lawyers, for example, may handle the incorporation of community and non-profit organizations, work with them on obtaining tax-exempt status, deal with their corporate governance issues, negotiate their leases and, in general, provide business advice that extends to all of their activities. Pro bono is not the exclusive province of the litigators.

Editor: Would each of you give us your thoughts about pro bono work and the organization's morale - for both Lowenstein and the Center? What is the connection between the values that an organization espouses and how its people feel about themselves and the organization they work for?

Wood: Doing this work on a daily basis is always rewarding. It is very encouraging, however, for those of us who do it full-time to meet others who have taken different paths in the profession but who are as dedicated as we are to trying to provide access to justice for people who, for a variety of reasons, have been on the fringes of our society and its justice system. Those who make themselves available to support our projects - and give so generously of their skills and time - serve to validate, for us, the importance of the work we do every day.

Kramer: These are very compelling issues. It is a privilege to be able to use your education and experience to advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves. At Lowenstein people are very anxious to be included in these undertakings, and I think the morale of the firm is greatly enhanced by the perception that the firm - in its culture and values - encourages this desire.

Editor: Would you share with us your thoughts about the personal rewards of this kind of undertaking?

Wood: When I came to work this morning there was a message from our client in the adoption agency case expressing his gratitude for our services. That is a good way to start the day. Standing up for those who need assistance on issues that are vital to our society is its own reward, but receiving that kind of acknowledgement is very special and serves to make all the hard work even more worthwhile.

Kramer: The ability to be a voice for someone who is unable to advocate for him or herself and knowing that you have positively impacted someone's life is the ultimate reward.

Please email the interviewees at jrkramer@lowenstein.com or ewood@lac.org with questions about this interview.