Pro Bono - Law Firms The Pro Bono Arena: Always The Unexpected, Always Gratifying

Thursday, December 1, 2005 - 01:00

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

Prohl: I am a sixth-year corporate associate at Proskauer. My practice is primarily focused on intellectual property, securities and mergers & acquisitions work. I am a 2000 graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law.

Burns: I was a summer associate at Proskauer in 2000. After graduating from Fordham Law School in 2001, I clerked for two years for Judge John Keenan of the Southern District of New York. In October of 2003 I returned to Proskauer. I am in the Litigation Department, and my practice primarily focuses on white-collar criminal cases, as well as regulatory inquiries and internal investigations.

Ruthizer: I was a summer associate at Proskauer in 2002 and began working here full time following my graduation from Columbia Law School in 2003. I am a third-year litigation associate, and my practice is general commercial litigation.

Editor: How did each of you come to Proskauer? What were the things that attracted you to the firm?

Prohl: I came to Proskauer directly from law school. One of the things that attracted me to Proskauer was the high quality of transactional IP work the firm offered, but I was also greatly impressed by the associates I met while interviewing. The general atmosphere of the firm was also very compelling.

Burns: I came to Proskauer initially as a summer associate. I liked the people I met here, and I appreciated the quality and the great variety of work I was able to do in the Litigation Department. It appeared to be a very comfortable fit. Additionally, when I was about to return to Proskauer at the end of my clerkship, I was interested to see that Bob Cleary had joined the firm from the U.S. Attorney's Office and started a strong white-collar criminal defense practice. The opportunity to be part of such a practice was very exciting.

Ruthizer: My initial exposure to Proskauer was as a summer associate. I was so impressed by what I found here during that period - in terms of the people at the firm and the quality of the work in which they were engaged - that I accepted an offer to join Proskauer's Litigation Department.

Editor: Proskauer's reputation for its commitment to pro bono and community service is substantial. Please share with our readers your perception of the firm's pro bono culture.

Burns: I think the most significant thing about the firm's commitment is the real substance that underlies the public affirmation. All pro bono hours count in the same way as billable hours in an attorney's annual evaluation, for example. Many firms claim to be committed to pro bono service, but they do not count pro bono hours in the same way. In addition, the firm works with a number of non-profit agencies to provide opportunities across a wide range of practice areas so that everyone has a chance to participate in these projects. Coordinating and supervising a program of this complexity is very significant. The partners engaged in this effort - and they all have very busy professional lives - devote a great deal of time to the program and to their own pro bono cases. In my mind, all of this adds up to a very great commitment to the principles behind pro bono service.

Prohl: I think it is also significant that Proskauer has each incoming first-year associate take on a pro bono project as their first assignment with the firm. From the very outset, the associates are encouraged to take pro bono work seriously. I now have some six or seven pro bono clients that I work for on a regular basis, and I know that I am not alone in this regard.

Ruthizer: It is also the case that attorneys at all levels, from entry-level associates to senior partners, are engaged in pro bono work. This is a clear indication of the importance of pro bono to the firm.

Editor: Each of you has demonstrated a strong commitment to pro bono work. How do these maintain a balance between your pro bono and billable efforts?

Ruthizer: The balance is something for each attorney to work out. The firm considers pro bono clients as equal in importance to its most significant billable clients. It is very supportive of everyone trying to strike a proper balance in getting the work done for both types of clients.

Prohl: Because the firm counts the hours billed towards pro bono work as "billable hours" for purposes of determining an associate's yearly productivity, an associate has no incentive to distinguish pro bono work from work provided by paying clients. As a result, work is work and we can manage our time among all of our assignments without regard to who is paying the bill.

Editor: Jennifer, you have been involved with indigent clients seeking re-sentencing under recent amendments to the Rockefeller Drug Laws. What is the background on this?

Burns: At the end of last year the Legislature enacted a reform to the Rockefeller Drug Laws, which are the New York state sentencing provisions for drug crimes and known to be notoriously harsh. The Legislature has decided, after some 30 years of controversy, that the initial provisions were too harsh. That has made certain categories of defendants eligible for re-sentencing. The goal, of course, is to have the original sentences reduced. Proskauer decided to work with the Legal Aid Society in taking on a substantial number of these cases. This entails meeting with clients, drafting petitions, court hearings and a variety of efforts intended to result in a reduced sentence for the inmate.

The implications of this project are enormous. We have had a few successful re-sentencings already. I had a client originally sentenced to 23 years to life on the drug count only, with two concurrent sentences of 12 and one-half to 25 years, as well as two consecutive sentences of 7 to 14 years, totaling a 30-to-life sentence. He has now been re-sentenced to a determinate sentence of 20 years. He is eligible for parole in 17 years. Many defendants have walked out of prison the day after their court hearing. The impact on the lives of these people cannot be measured.

Editor: Kristen, please tell us about your efforts on behalf of non-profit organizations. What kinds of undertakings?

Prohl: Proskauer is corporate counsel to a substantial number of non-profit organizations. The organizations are varied, and the types of projects they bring to the firm range as well, including litigation, commercial contracts, real estate and employment law. Personally, I am often involved in drafting and negotiating commercial contracts, attending meetings of governing boards and advising clients about the Not-for-Profit Corporation Law and the other rules and regulations governing non-profit organizations. I feel a great deal of satisfaction in helping these organizations navigate the legal systems in which they operate, knowing that by doing so I help these great organizations help others.

Editor: I have always thought that litigation provided plenty of pro bono opportunities, but that it was something of a challenge to find suitable projects for transactional lawyers. It appears that you have found many opportunities.

Prohl: That is a common misperception, and it's unfortunate. The variety of pro bono work available for transactional lawyers is endless, from incorporating and obtaining tax-free status for not-for-profit organizations to drafting and negotiating commercial contracts to registering or licensing intellectual property. There are a number of organizations out there that need corporate representation and are unable to pay lawyers' fees. For example, New York is filled with artists trying to bring their work to the world, and much of the work I do involves the representation of arts and entertainment organizations. That is but one small aspect of what is available to those who are not litigators.

Editor: Josh, please tell us about your recent success with the Social Security Administration.

Ruthizer: My initial pro bono assignment was an appeal of a denial of Social Security disability benefits. The plaintiff had been injured in the early 1990's on the job, applied for disability and was denied. With our help, and a visit to the administrative courts, a letter to the appeals counsel and a return to the courts, he was able to obtain a lump sum payment for a period of his disability. This was an unusual case. Because of the appeal process, it took a year and a half to set the matter to rights. The ultimate award was for a substantial amount of money, however, and I think this has made a real difference in the client's life.

Editor: And, if you can, please tell us about the recognition you are to receive from the Legal Aid Society.

Ruthizer: The award is for my efforts on this pro bono case. I am not sure that I deserve any more recognition than anyone else who is engaged in this work, but it came as a complete surprise and I am very grateful.

Editor: Would you share with us your thoughts about the benefits that you derive from your pro bono undertakings?

Burns: For me, the benefits are many. Pro bono work is an excellent way to make personal contact with clients, and invariably the clients are very grateful. It is also an opportunity to engage in very responsible work - comprehensive drafting, the planning, organization and writing of complete briefs, strategic initiatives, and so on - that might not come with billable clients for a long time.

Ruthizer: As Jenn says, it is very gratifying to see the tangible results of your efforts, especially when the client calls to let you know how pleased they are with the results you have attained. From the standpoint of skill sets, pro bono work enables a junior associate to really stretch beyond what he or she would be able to do as a junior member of a team handling a large litigation.

Prohl: In addition, this work constitutes a rewarding experience from the standpoint of broadening one's horizons intellectually. Much of the work that I do for billable clients has a certain predictability to it. There are precedents, and I can usually call upon the experience of others who have been through similar transactions. Very often that is not the case with the complex and unexpected issues that arise when you are representing someone as general corporate counsel, and because you are the first and only resource for these clients, you are always learning something new in order to respond to their requests.

Editor: And the connection between pro bono work and firm morale?

Prohl: The fact that Proskauer stands so firmly behind its pro bono work gives a huge boost to firm morale. It gives the associates an enormous amount of pride to be identified with the firm in these efforts.

Please email the interviewees at jburns@proskauer.com, kprohl@proskauer.com or jruthizer@proskauer.com with questions about this interview.