Pro Bono - Law Firms Ballard Spahr's Pro Bono Work - AFirmwide Commitment

Thursday, December 1, 2005 - 01:00

The Editor interviews Mary Gay Scanlon, Executive Director of Ballard Spahr Andrews and Ingersoll's Pro Bono Program. The firm has been chosen for the Philadelphia Bar Association's Citizens Bank Pro Bono Award to be presented at the Alexander Hamilton Ball this year. Prior to this award, Mary Gay was the recipient of the Fidelity Award, the Philadelphia Bar Association's highest honor for public service, for her work in improving access to justice for children.

Editor: What major factors set Ballard Spahr apart from other law firms that applied for the Citizens Bank Award?

Scanlon: Several factors: first is the duration of our program. It started in 1988, and was one of the first formal pro bono programs in Philadelphia with dedicated leadership and support staff; second, is the depth of the program - it includes senior partners, associates, summer associates and legal assistants; third is the breadth of the program - all offices, all departments. Pro bono is not limited to litigators since we have a lot of transactional and law reform work and research on pro bono issues other than litigation.

Editor: What is the nature of the award?

Scanlon: The Citizens Bank Pro Bono Award is given by the Philadelphia Bar Foundation in recognition of outstanding contributions to pro bono work in Philadelphia. Ballard Spahr has decided to divide the $10,000 award, and contribute $1000 to each of the five public interest law firms on which our attorneys serve as board members (Philadelphia VIP, Homeless Advocacy Project, AIDS Law Project, Support Center for Child Advocates, Philadelphia Legal Assistance, and Philadelphia Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts), and donate the remainder to the Bar Foundation for distribution to other legal service agencies in its grants program.

Editor: Few law firms have the commitment to pro bono work that your firm has, not only by virtue of the commitment of a staff member to full time pro bono work but also to the number of hours devoted by your lawyers to pro bono service in a vast number of areas. Why does your firm stand out so markedly in this regard?

Scanlon: Philosophically, one of the core values that unites our lawyers across all offices is a commitment to public service which naturally finds expression in our pro bono work. Toward this end we do not have one particular signature project - rather we have a "big tent" approach and accommodate the varying interests of lawyers in different offices and communities. On a practical level, early on, the firm decided to grant full billable hour credit for pro bono work. That in itself demonstrates Ballard commitment where it really matters - at the bottom line.

Editor: What are your duties as Executive Director of the Pro Bono Program?

Scanlon: I look for interesting pro bono opportunities in the various communities we serve, which I match with the interests of our lawyers. I recruit some of the country's most talented lawyers and offer their services to people in organizations which could not otherwise afford an attorney . I work with volunteers on great projects. This allows me to connect people who can make a difference. Internally, there is record-keeping and other administrative duties that keep me in touch with our lawyers' activities.

Editor: How do you go about seeking out those opportunities?

Scanlon: We have connections with many public interest law firms and pro bono referral agencies. By keeping in touch with them, we have a steady stream of interesting matters. Also, many of our attorneys are on boards of non-profits or are involved in projects in their communities. They bring us transactional work through their connections. With participation in local bar associations, we hear about other initiatives, particularly legislative reform projects.

Editor: Tell us about your interest in child welfare. Why has the firm concentrated so much effort in this specialized area?

Scanlon: I first got involved in pro bono work when I was just out of law school and trained with Philadelphia's Support Center for Child Advocates, a group that represents abused and neglected children. I have now been working with that group for 20 years. Later, I worked for the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, representing parents and students individually and in class actions to enforce their education rights.

One of the reasons that Ballard was such a good fit for me was its long-standing commitment to children's issues. In each of our offices there are lawyers who have worked on issues involving child abuse, whether it is volunteering with the Support Center or the Rocky Mountain Children Center in Denver and other local agencies. Anthony Kaye, one of our Salt Lake City partners, served on a Governor's Commission to address issues of child abuse in the State of Utah, and recommended legislation. Lawyers are drawn to help the neediest, and children are among the most helpless.

Editor: In our April issue Mark Stewart of your firm spoke of the fine work the firm was doing in providing assistance to the National Commission on the Voting Rights Act. What more have your lawyers accomplished in the ensuing months?

Scanlon: We've had a team of lawyers working with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, which is part of the National Commission on Voting Rights, on a series of hearings, examining racism in the context of the forthcoming reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, which occurs periodically. In April 2005, a hearing on how racism affects voting was held in Montgomery, Alabama followed by nine hearings around the country. We have participated in seven such hearings by organizing testimony and interviewing potential witnesses. The hearings have just concluded, and the lawyers' attention now has turned to preparing a report to be presented to Congress next spring. Our attorneys are drafting a section of the report relating to the ten-state area of the Southeastern U.S. and will submit it to the Commission for inclusion in the larger report to Congress. While the Voting Rights Act came out of the struggle for racial equality in the South, there are varied racial issues around the country, such as the disenfranchisement of Native Americans and Hispanics in other parts of our country.

Editor: You also have a number of immigration case victories to your credit.

Scanlon: While low income people generally have difficulty getting legal services, immigrants are at an even greater disadvantage due to language, cultural barriers and restrictions of government-funded agencies. We have been fortunate in having Shereen Chen as our Immigration practice leader in our Voorhees office. She has been able to train and support our pro bono group that provides services to immigrants. Among our more interesting cases are several "Lost Boys of the Sudan," a group of young people who were orphaned by the civil unrest in Sudan, and at very young ages trekked across Africa to escape their home country's conditions. See Web site at http://www.pbs.org/pov/pov2004/lostboysofsudan/. Over three thousand were admitted to the U.S. as refugees and needed to establish their immigration status. We have had seven as clients. They are amazingly resilient young people, who by March of 2005 seemed to be fitting nicely into their new environments, making contributions and pursuing their educations. Shereen Chen organized a training session and provided the materials for the volunteers to help them secure permanent residency status.

Editor: Please describe the work of your associates group in providing research and analysis to the City of Philadelphia's Ethics Commission.

Scanlon: Two years ago the City of Philadelphia set up an Ethics Commission to study its current ethics rules and to make recommendations for how they could be improved. One of our partners, Charisse Lillie, was a member of that Commission. She asked for pro bono assistance to supplement the Commission which was staffed by civic leaders and volunteers. This was one of those times when I sent out an e-mail to determine who might be interested in working on this project and within half an hour I had a dozen volunteers. We had associates who researched ethics codes from other municipalities, from states, from corporations, from other countries. They digested this material and made recommendations for best practices, which were then submitted to the Commission. From there they were sent to City Council for enactment.

Editor: What was the firm's response to Hurricane Katrina?

Scanlon: Hurricane Katrina provides a good example of how we get involved in macro as well as micro pro bono projects. Since 2002 our law firm has represented the Housing Authority of New Orleans, the agency responsible for low-income housing. After Hurricane Katrina, on a pro bono basis, we helped the Housing Authority get a 501(c)(3) designation from the IRS so that their non-profit association could get tax-deductible contributions to develop affordable housing and assist residents in relocating. We have also been providing pro bono advice to the Housing Authority in connection with proposals for emergency federal legislation and plans to house the displaced residents as well as financing of replacement housing. On a micro basis, Philadelphia was designated as a Regional Assistance Center for hurricane evacuees. A Philadelphia school was set up to house evacuees with a legal clinic to address their legal needs. Our lawyers helped staff the clinic during the time it was available.

Editor: Please summarize the diverse range of the firm's pro bono work.

Scanlon : We work for individuals in areas ranging from child abuse to home ownership issues to Social Security disability cases to struggling artists who are trying to get their first recording contract. We also do transactional work for non-profit organizations ranging from helping them acquire non-profit status to helping them negotiate leases or dealing with labor issues. We have a wide range of projects.

Editor: Do you feel that tone at the top of the firm is responsible for such a fine record?

Scanlon: The tone for pro bono work has definitely been set at the top, beginning in 1988 when the firm decided to have a dedicated pro bono program and made the decision that pro bono hours would count as billable hours. Our firm leadership is actively involved in pro bono work. A year ago Arthur Makadon, the Chairman of the firm, led a team involved in preparing an amicus brief for the ACLU opposing the expansion of Pennsylvania's wire tap statute. Last November the firm decided to take on another death penalty case, knowing that it would involve a significant commitment of firm resources. Our pro bono work is a top to bottom commitment.