A Noble Mission: Filling The Pipeline With Public Service Lawyers

Friday, September 1, 2006 - 01:00

The Editor interviews David Stern, Chief Executive Officer, Equal Justice Works.

Editor: Please tell our readers about your professional background and what brought you to Equal Justice Works.

Stern: I went to Georgetown Law Center, but knew from the beginning that I wanted to do public interest work. I found it hard to sustain that interest during law school because so much of the culture and emphasis at Georgetown was geared towards private practice. I sought out clinics and public interest related courses. Most of my classmates were headed for big firms.

After I graduated from law school, I clerked for two separate federal judges in Baltimore. I then went to work for a small commercial law firm. I was the first associate hired by the four partners there. I admired them and the quality of the work that they did, but I did not find it personally rewarding.

A year later, I moved to a public interest civil rights law firm in Washington, D.C. I did that for a couple of years. It gave me the opportunity to work on spectacular cases that enabled me to fight to correct injustices that made my blood boil. For example, we worked on an AIDS discrimination case where a woman was tethered to a bed in a hospital because people were afraid of her and her illness. AIDS was relatively new and people were not sure what to do. The hospital failed to follow accepted medical procedures and had neglected to train its staff to deal with such patients.

I worked on that case and several others that made me feel much more satisfied with my decision to practice law. I did feel a sense of frustration that for each case we handled there was another one at the door waiting for representation - and we had to turn many needy clients away.

I realized that my efforts and those of the others involved in public service work would have little effect on the overall need for more lawyers to do this work. I wanted to do something that would address this larger problem. So when I heard about Equal Justice Works and its commitment to mobilizing an army of lawyers to do public service work, I was inspired.

I came here in 1992. It has been a phenomenal run. The organization is always evolving and adding new programs. It has been very satisfying to see the progress we made. We are focused on instilling public service values in law students and giving them opportunities to put those values in practice in law school and shortly thereafter. In our view, nothing does a better job of instilling public service values than actually rolling up your sleeves and doing public service work.

Last week, I had a conversation with a law firm lawyer who said that she initially had not liked the idea of pro bono - but after handling one matter and finding it so easy to provide assistance to someone who desperately needed it, she discovered how rewarding it can be. Now she loves to perform pro bono work.

Editor: How can corporations contribute to the expansion of pro bono services by helping Equal Justice Works?

Stern: Our program offers corporations and law firms an opportunity to sponsor recent graduates to work on a discrete project in a nonprofit organization for two years. The lawyers stay in touch with their sponsors and periodically come into their offices to describe the work they do. Let me give you an example.

AT&T Wireless, before joining with Cingular, sponsored an Equal Justice Works Fellowship for Casey Trupin, who had recently graduated from the University of Washington Law School. The Fellowship made it possible for Casey to work in Seattle on behalf of young people who live on the streets and had not been served by any legal services organization. Greg Landis was general counsel of AT&T Wireless at the time. He is now with Vulcan, which is Paul Allen's company.

Casey got a van and went out to where the kids were. He brought them legal services to help them with various needs, such as getting a job, public housing or benefits. Bringing a client with him, Casey made a presentation to the entire legal department of AT&T Wireless. The client described how he had suffered so much abuse from parents that his only alternative was to run away.

This kid won them over. As a result of this, some of the lawyers and legal support staff in AT&T started going out on the van with Casey to provide services to those children. They realized that the kids needed some way for prospective employers to contact them if they were ever going to find jobs and arranged for AT&T wireless to provide them with mobile phones.

Editor: How can corporations help Equal Justice Works?

Stern: They can support our Fellowship program. Most pro bono in this country is supported by the private sector. There is a misconception that government will provide the necessary funds. The reality is that the Federal government's total appropriation for legal services is under $500,000 - and state contributions have also been drastically reduced.

Very few lawyers are financially able to take jobs with pro bono providers, particularly with the large educational debt people have when they graduate. Therefore, it is important for corporations not only to contribute to public service organizations, but also to find ways to encourage more lawyers to devote full time to public interest work. We play a vital role in this. Through our Fellowships, we increase the limited number of lawyers who are willing to commit their lives to public service.

By supporting our program, corporations not only increase the ability of other pro bono organizations to find needed staff, but also have the satisfaction of being able to identify with the recipient of their Fellowship and his or her accomplishments.

The many corporate pro bono superstars on our board of directors attract corporate funding because corporate donors know that their contributions will be put to good use. Anastasia Kelly, our chair, is a homerun. She served as general counsel of Fannie Mae, Sears and MCI. Andy Zopp, also a former general counsel of Sears, is on our board. Anastasia is phenomenal. She goes with me on the road and talks to other general counsel. Because she is a peer speaking to them, she exerts extraordinary influence. Marc Gary is general counsel of Bell South. He won the Pro Bono Institute National Award for his department. Allen Waxman, just promoted to General Counsel at Pfizer, is also on our board.

Editor: Why should corporate law departments participate in pro bono?

Stern: First and foremost every lawyer has a special responsibility to provide pro bono services to the poor. Yet, in-house lawyers may be fearful that if they do pro bono work, they may be perceived by the CEO as being not busy enough and that the CEO will roll his or her eyes and want to reduce the number of lawyers to eliminate what she or he might feel is an unnecessary expense.

I think that the fair answer is that there is a very strong business case for in-house lawyers to do pro bono work. There are some companies and government agencies that reward employees who exercise during the work day. They notice that productivity increases. A very similar effect takes place when lawyers do public service work. When they do it, they feel good about their work. We talk to a lot of lawyers and it is always the pro bono cases that they tend to remember.

By encouraging its lawyers to engage in public service, a corporation enhances its public image as a good citizen. It paints for the public a picture of the corporation as being concerned about those who lack access to justice. Over the last 10 years, an increasing number of chief legal officers have gotten this message. A good example of that is Pfizer, whose dedication to public service under the leadership of Jeff Kindler was depicted in the first part of your coverage of legal pro bono in last month's issue of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel . Jack Martin, the former general counsel of Ford Motor Company is another. Jack's active encouragement of pro bono by members of the Ford legal department immensely increased the productivity of the lawyers on his staff. Jack continues to handle immigration cases on a pro bono basis during his retirement in Florida. This is someone who has these values in his blood. Michael Helfer, the general counsel of Citigroup, has the premier pro bono program in the country. He has been spending time looking for avenues to send his attorneys to Mississippi to get training on housing issues so that they can represent victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Another example is Ben Heineman, who recently retired as general counsel of General Electric. During his career there, Ben became a role model for many general counsel - and by demonstrating what a quality general counsel could accomplish for his company, changed the caliber of people who are sought out to become general counsel. When he came into GE, it was not the coveted position that it now is. While at General Electric, he trained many lawyers in the importance of balancing dedication to public service, pro bono and diversity with their practices. Many of those in the GE legal department moved on to become general counsel and sometimes CEO's of other major companies. Jeff Kindler at Pfizer is just one example.

Today, with "bet-the-company" issues resting on how a company is perceived by judges, juries, legislatures, regulators and the community in general, the pay off from pro bono can be huge. As companies respond to the message being spread by the Jack Martins, Ben Heinemans, Jeff Kindlers and Michael Helfers of the general counsel world, they realize that doing good is one of the most important keys to doing well.

Editor: We are also seeing an increasing interest among corporate counsel in selecting law firms that reflect the image that the corporation wishes to project to courts and legislatures.

Stern: You are right. Corporate legal departments, when hiring law firms, are giving significant weight to a firm's commitment to pro bono. We have seen how corporate counsel have been able to change the attitudes of law firms toward diversity. Look at Rick Palmore's call to action for general counsel to encourage their law firms to support diversity, which followed in the footsteps of Charles Morgan's pioneering efforts when he was at Bell South. The very public position taken by the general counsel of Wal-Mart, Tom Mars, about the desire of that company to hire law firms that practice diversity has also had an effect. Now, we are seeing key corporate counsel leaders, like those I mentioned, calling for corporate counsel to hire law firms that will project the image of good citizenship that the corporation wishes to convey in the many settings in which they represent the corporation. You cannot underestimate the importance of what those leaders are saying because the law firms depend on them for business. When a client says that they want firms to meet their pro bono commitments, the law firms listen.

Editor: As you know, The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel takes great pride in the fact that it has over the years sought to promote diversity and pro bono by providing general counsel leaders like those you mentioned with a platform and publicizing the diversity and pro bono efforts of law firms. Has the press had an impact?

Stern: Definitely. Another significant press influence that motivates law firms to do more pro bono work is The American Lawyer "A List," which ranks law firms on various factors, including such things as profits per partner, diversity, associate satisfaction and pro bono - with pro bono being double weighted. If you want to be on the A list, you have to pay attention to each of those elements.

Publicizing the good work of corporations and law firms is critical. We often do not acknowledge those contributions. The more that we can celebrate them, the more it will stimulate others to emulate them.

Editor: Tell us about how Equal Justice Works and ACC worked together to serve the victims of Katrina.

Stern: Susan Hackett, the general counsel of ACC, deserves most of the credit for that. She is on our board and came to us after the Katrina disaster and wanted to do something. We decided that providing lawyers qualified to give needed advice was the best way we could help. We developed a proposal for Susan that outlined a plan for finding the talent needed to work on those issues. The result was a program that grew to 19 lawyers. We raised $2 million in four months.

The concept was the brain-child of Susan. She said that this is something that would fit within our organizational mission. We found her a phenomenal Fellow, Reilly Morse, who is working with the Mississippi Center for Justice. A third generation Gulf Coast resident, Reilly has 20 plus years of experience as a lawyer - including service as a former Assistant Municipal Judge. His offices and papers were destroyed by the Hurricane. He now represents people on insurance issues and claims for assistance from FEMA.

Editor: Where can our readers go to get further information about Equal Justice Works and its Fellowship program?

Stern: They can go to our Web site at www.equaljusticeworks.org.