Pro Bono Service: "One Of The Defining Characteristics Of Our Firm Culture"

Tuesday, August 1, 2006 - 01:00

Editor: Ms. Mayer, would you tell our readers something about your professional experience?

Mayer: I am a partner in the Business Finance and Restructuring Department and the Pro Bono partner for our Houston office. I graduated from the University of Houston Law Center, summa cum laude, in 1993 and joined Weil Gotshal's Houston office at that time. At Weil Gotshal, our Business Finance and Restructuring practice is considered to be the premier bankruptcy practice in the U.S. We are involved in virtually every major bankruptcy case around the country, including having represented the debtors in the two largest chapter 11 bankruptcy filings in the history of U.S. bankruptcy - WorldCom, Inc. and Enron Corp. In fact, I have spent most of the last five years working on these two cases.

In the Houston office, we work closely with our New York office and the other regional offices, as well as with our restructuring practices in Europe. We handle both national and regional cases and both in-court and out-of-court restructurings. While we typically represent either the debtor or creditors' committee in a chapter 11 case, we also have significant experience representing other parties in interest, such as secured creditors, bank groups, parties interested in acquiring assets, etc.

Editor: How did you come to Weil Gotshal? What were the things that attracted you to the firm?

Mayer: While in law school, I had the good fortune to clerk for Weil Gotshal. It was a fantastic experience. I was drawn to the firm immediately, given the combination of challenging and sophisticated work and the dynamic and diverse workforce. I accepted an offer with Weil Gotshal while completing law school and have truly enjoyed my time with the firm. It has been and continues to be an intellectually and personally rewarding experience.

Editor: You have also enjoyed a career in pro bono work. For starters, what drew you to this type of activity?

Mayer: I have always had a strong commitment to giving back to my community. I have been involved in charitable giving, non-profit work and social action issues most of my life. By way of example, when I was in college, a friend and I worked to secure the release of a Soviet refusenik family. We organized demonstrations and letter-writing campaigns, raised funds and orchestrated a trip for a member of Congress to visit with the family, and we garnered as much public support and publicity for their cause as we could. The family was released in 1987 and emigrated to the U.S.

After I joined Weil Gotshal, my commitment continued, and I worked on several pro bono projects as an associate. When I became a partner in January 2004, I was asked to assume the responsibility for the pro bono program in Houston and joined the firm's Pro Bono Committee. My participation and supervision of the pro bono program has been one of the most profoundly satisfying aspects of my career.

Editor: Would you share with us some of the highlights of the program?

Mayer: From top down, our firm places great emphasis on the pro bono program. Action often speaks louder than words. As a firm, we have instilled this core value in our associates through the partners' commitment and involvement in these good works. Our motto for the pro bono program is "Weil Gotshal Pro Bono - Our Finest Hours," and we mean it.

In terms of specific projects, as a single parent of young children myself, one of our most gratifying efforts for me involved reuniting a young child with her mother, a Mexican national. Our client's three-year-old daughter was abducted by her estranged husband and brought illegally to the United States, where he prevented her from having virtually any contact with her daughter for over two years. Mother and daughter were successfully reunited in 2005.

Our pro bono efforts in Houston have been varied, and each is rewarding in its own way. We have handled a number of matters involving voting rights, issues facing the mentally ill in the Texas criminal justice system, and a wide variety of immigration matters. We have also filed several appellate amicus briefs on behalf of parties, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Anti-Defamation League. Our work on the amicus brief for the ADL led to my subsequent involvement in the organization. Initially, I served on the Civil Rights Committee for the local chapter, and now I am also a member of the board. Most recently, we have become involved in several projects on behalf of victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Editor: Who participates in these undertakings?

Mayer: Every partner in the firm is expected to be involved in at least one pro bono project a year, and associates are encouraged to do so as well. The attorneys in our Houston office are very supportive of this policy. Moreover, I have found that the key to attorney involvement is to identify the pro bono opportunities most appealing to each attorney. Some attorneys are focused on a particular organization or cause, some are focused on doing work that hones a particular skill set, some want discrete projects so they can make small commitments repeatedly throughout the year, and others want an opportunity to work on something entirely outside of their own practice area. We try to provide a variety of matters so that everyone will find something they want to commit to and work on.

Editor: You mentioned the work of the office's pro bono lawyers in connection with Hurricane Katrina. How did that come about?

Mayer: In October 2005, the Houston office hosted a reception honoring John C. Brittain, a recognized Fourteenth Amendment specialist and a member of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. While we were involved in various local efforts on behalf of victims of Katrina in the early months, it was at this reception that our projects in Louisiana and Mississippi were conceived. I had the opportunity to meet with Barbara Arnwine and Nancy Anderson of the LCCRUL to discuss various issues, including their response efforts following the hurricane. When asked where they saw the greatest need, they identified three areas - an examination of homeowners' rights in New Orleans, legal counsel to assist Mississippi residents appealing from adverse decisions by FEMA, and attorneys on the ground in Mississippi. We committed immediately to assisting in these areas.

First, we undertook an in-depth analysis of the legal issues facing New Orleans property owners. In conjunction with the LCCRUL, we prepared a publication called The New Orleans Property Owners' Rights After Hurricane Katrina. The guide, which is available from the LCCRUL, is intended to help homeowners whose property has been damaged by the hurricane.

With respect to the FEMA undertaking, we worked with the LCCRUL and the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Program to create a hotline and referral program to provide pro bono legal assistance to Mississippi residents pursuing appeals of adverse decisions by FEMA. There was an overwhelming need in Mississippi, and what was needed was an idea and a means to implement the idea. I designed the protocol and implemented the program, with Weil Gotshal taking on the first dozen or so cases. Once the process was in place, law firms from all around the country were anxious to become involved. To date, over a hundred additional lawyers have joined the program. It has been a tremendous experience for the Weil Gotshal attorneys and, indeed, for everyone who has participated.

Editor: The firm's externship has also been engaged in helping Hurricane Katrina victims. Please tell us about that effort.

Mayer: During my tenure as the Pro Bono partner for the Houston office, I have been approached several times by organizations asking us to participate in an externship. Typically, the request is that we lend them an attorney for three to six months. For an office our size - we have about fifty attorneys - such an externship is impractical. When the LCCRUL expressed its desire for hands-on assistance in Mississippi, I came up with the idea of a modified externship. We developed a model which involved sending an attorney from Monday to Thursday for two weeks and then rotating to the next attorney. This served the dual purpose of making the project feasible for us, but also allowing more of our attorneys to share in the experience. We have sent seven attorneys over a three-month period, and the enthusiasm for the externship has been unanimous. The LCCRUL has been overwhelmingly appreciative and the associates who participated have returned reinvigorated and praising the firm for its commitment to this program. It isn't often that we, as lawyers, have a chance to change someone's life for the better in a matter of minutes.

Editor: Would you share with us your thoughts on how working on projects such as the ones you have described in connection with Hurricane Katrina impact the morale of the lawyers who participate?

Mayer: We are a large law firm with offices around the world. Regardless of their practice area, our attorneys are working on cutting-edge, sophisticated work on a daily basis. The lawyers here are industrious, smart and the kind of people who do not shy away from a challenge. It is a testament to our firm's commitment to pro bono that we do not distinguish between paying clients and pro bono clients. We give our all to those we represent. This degree of commitment to public service has a significant and positive impact on the morale of our attorneys and our support staff. They take a great deal of pride in being part of this enterprise - in no small measure, I think, as a consequence of our commitment to pro bono service.

Editor: This commitment did not just happen. Can you tell us something about the firm's pro bono culture?

Mayer: I think our commitment to pro bono and public service is unique. I do not believe that you see the kind of integrated, across-the-board, firm-wide commitment to giving back to the community that we have unless it comes from the very top. This is a commitment originally made by the firm's leadership a long time ago, and it has become one of the defining characteristics of our firm culture. Most professionals understand and support charitable and non-profit organizations, whether through contributions of their time or money. But only lawyers can provide pro bono legal services to those in need. At Weil Gotshal, there is a firm-wide notion that providing such services is both an obligation of the profession and a privilege, and that has permeated through the ranks of the firm.

Please email the interviewee at sylvia.mayer@weil.com with questions about this interview.