Pro Bono - Law Firms A Strong Pro Bono Program Determined To Get Stronger

Thursday, December 1, 2005 - 00:00

Editor: Mr. Trachtman, would you tell our readers something about your professional background?

Trachtman: I am a native New Yorker and graduate of NYU Law School. I came to Kramer Levin in 1986 following two judicial clerkships. I became a partner, as well as Chair of our Pro Bono Committee, in 1994. I was attracted to Kramer Levin for its high level of professional practice, its friendly atmosphere, and its strong pro bono commitment, all of which remain hallmarks of the firm.

Editor: Please tell us about your practice.

Trachtman: My practice has evolved along two parallel tracks. My commercial practice has become increasingly specialized in bankruptcy litigation, particularly mass tort bankruptcies such as the Dow Corning case. My pro bono work has, in contrast, ranged widely, although there are a couple of specializations. One concerns Social Security disability, where we represent claimants from the agency level to federal court appeals. For several years I have prosecuted a class action challenging the way the Social Security Administration evaluates the claims of children for disability benefits - a case that has the potential to help thousands of poor children. I've also specialized in civil rights, specifically gay and lesbian rights. From the early 1990s we were involved in the Dale v. Boy Scouts case, which concerned a scoutmaster dismissed for being gay. We filed amicus briefs at all levels of the case, up to and including the United States Supreme Court, and also participated in Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down sodomy laws. More recently I have been co-counsel with Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund in Hernandez v. Robles, a New York case challenging the ban on marriage rights for same-sex couples. We won at the trial level and are now defending that decision on appeal. Simultaneously, we are handling a case that seeks recognition of a valid Canadian marriage by a Long Island school district that denied spousal benefits to a married retired teacher. In a third case, we are representing the lesbian survivor of a 9/11 victim in litigation over an award from the Federal Victims' Compensation Fund.

Editor: Obviously you are part of a firm that places a high value on this type of activity.

Trachtman: Like most major firms today, we understand pro bono to be a core professional obligation. We have pledged to devote three percent of our time overall to pro bono legal services. From time to time honoring that commitment might require particular attorneys to devote a significant portion of their time, but we try to staff our larger projects in such a way as to share the work so we can get all our billable work done and still honor our pro bono commitments. Because our attorneys get so much out of their pro bono matters, in terms of personal and professional satisfaction and skill development, we work hard to keep our involvement going even when the firm is quite busy.

Editor: Kramer Levin's commitment to pro bono did not just happen. Can you tell us something about the history of this undertaking?

Trachtman: Many of the people who founded the firm, including Maury Nessen and Arthur Kramer, had backgrounds in public service. The firm, as a consequence, has always attracted people with a strong sense of engagement in the issues of the day. For example, my partners Bob Heller and Charlotte Fishman, just to name two with long records of public service, were attracted by the founding group as young lawyers in the 1960s. Later Ezra Levin, who has always been deeply involved in human rights and charitable work, and former judge Marvin Frankel, one of the great pro bono advocates of our time, became firm leaders. Although we've lost Marvin, it is people like him who helped instill in the rest of us a passion for excellence and public service that continues to attract outstanding, highly engaged lawyers to the firm.

Editor: Can you give us an overview of the firm's pro bono program?

Trachtman: The shape of our program has always been influenced by the preferences of individual attorneys. Nevertheless, a program with 100 lawyers working on 100 separate cases is not going to accomplish nearly as much as one that leverages the firm's expertise and provides focus and direction. To deliver our services more efficiently, we have institutionalized the program to a degree. Our Social Security, political asylum, and gay rights practices reflect this attempt to create momentum through an institutional focus.

Some areas, like landlord-tenant work, are most efficiently handled on a full-time basis, so we created an externship program with South Brooklyn Legal Services (SBLS). We send associates on a rotating basis for four to five months to serve as staff attorneys at SBLS. Through direct representation, walk-in clinics and hotlines we have been able to service thousands of clients and, at the same time, provide our junior associates with tremendous client contact and experience in negotiating and problem-solving.

We also handle transactional work for a wide range of nonprofit organizations. We represent low-income artists. We do divorce and custody work. Basically, if one of our lawyers wishes to handle something - and it is an appropriate pro bono undertaking - we will take it on.

The ideal project is one that the lawyers involved feel passionate about and, at the same time, one that will stretch them professionally.

Editor: Pro bono work appears to offer plenty of opportunities for litigators. Not as much for other practice areas, however. How do you address this?

Trachtman: That is our major focus at the moment. Litigation, although it requires oversight and management, usually takes care of itself. On the transactional side, we have made a real effort to attract lawyers from a variety of practice groups. We circulate lists of matters available from Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, Lawyers Alliance for New York and other organizations. We also attempt to structure projects ourselves. Recently we partnered with Bushwick Cooperative Federal Credit Union, a nonprofit bank that makes loans to small enterprises in largely Latino neighborhoods in Brooklyn, to implement a microenterprise program. We provide pro bono legal assistance to the entrepreneurs - on contract, employment and tax issues, negotiating a lease, and so on. We believe many of our junior transactional colleagues will be attracted to the opportunity to help someone and, at the same time, gain hands-on experience on matters relevant to their own practices.

Editor: Would you share with us some of the firm's recent successes in the pro bono arena?

Trachtman: I spoke earlier about our work in Hernandez v. Robles . It was incredibly moving to read the trial judge's decision recognizing that our clients' rights were infringed by the denial of equal access to marriage. We have a way to go with the appeals, but we are hopeful that this decision will ultimately be upheld.

We have won a number of political asylum cases recently. Next to death penalty cases, this type of case is probably the most important from the life and death standpoint. If our clients are forced to return to their countries of origin, many of them face death. In just the past four years, for example, we have been able to gain asylum for eight people fleeing Chinese oppression in Tibet. This is very satisfying.

We have also had considerable success, working as co-counsel with Norman Siegel, in gaining access to Fire Department records in connection with the performance of communications and emergency systems on 9/11. This case was undertaken on behalf of the families of the lost firefighters, and it implicated First Amendment and public policy issues of some significance. My partner Tom Moreland, who was my predecessor as Pro Bono Chair, led this effort.

Another partner, Eric Tirschwell, recently filed a brief supporting a challenge to an evolution "disclaimer sticker" on a public school biology textbook seeking to lend scientific credence to "intelligent design," a variation on creationism. Eric is carrying on Marvin Frankel's work in the Establishment Clause area - exactly what I meant about lawyers being engaged in the issues of the day.

Editor: In May of this year you were recognized for your pro bono work with the President's Pro Bono Service Award of the New York State Bar Association. What led to this award?

Trachtman: I had spent more than 600 hours in 2004 on the pro bono cases we have discussed, so I expect it was a combination of that work and my longtime institutional role encouraging colleagues to get involved and helping to develop innovative projects, like our summer associate pro bono program. I've also been active in the City and nationally promoting pro bono issues and "best practices." For example, we were one of the first firms to produce a full-scale pro bono annual report to recognize and promote our program. While it was fun and gratifying to be recognized with the award, I feel like I'm getting credit for a lot of accomplishments that were really collaborations.

Editor: A strong pro bono program is acknowledged to be a reflection of a firm's values. Would you share with us the benefits that flow to the firm from a strong pro bono commitment?

Trachtman: New York possesses a distinctive pro bono culture, and there are very few elite firms that do not either maintain a strong pro bono program or at least purport to. A strong pro bono program enhances a firm's ability to recruit and then retain talented, engaged junior attorneys, and it also affords a vehicle for professional development throughout their careers. Clients are aware of a firm's pro bono program, and some even require a demonstrated commitment in the same way that they require a commitment to diversity. A visible pro bono commitment also enhances a firm's reputation with judges and other civic leaders.

Editor: How do you see the firm's pro bono program developing? Are there areas you would like to get into?

Trachtman: Our main goal right now is to increase the percentage of lawyers involved in pro bono work as the firm grows. With the development of departments outside the litigation area, it has become somewhat more difficult to satisfy consistently our three percent annual pledge. We are looking for opportunities that will attract the lawyers in these areas - for example, the microenterprise program. We are also building more internal administrative support for the program. We now have a full-time, in-house professional development coordinator who is working with the Pro Bono Committee to dovetail the firm's pro bono work with our orientation and development process. A strong pro bono program in a large firm needs at least some structure and must be attuned to as many disciplines and practice areas as possible. At Kramer Levin this is underway. We have a very good program, and I look forward to an even better one in the future.

Please email the interviewee at jtrachtman@kramerlevin.com with questions about this interview.