When The Concept Of Pro Bono Service Is Part Of A Law Firm's Collective Personality

Friday, September 1, 2006 - 01:00
Colleen F. Coonelly
Jerome J. Shestack

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

Coonelly: I began my career with a large firm in Philadelphia. My practice was concentrated in environmental, toxic tort and products liability litigation. From the beginning, I was fortunate to have mentors for whom pro bono work was an essential part of their professional life. I worked on pro bono cases that ranged from impact women's rights litigation, to a death penalty case, to cases representing individual women seeking protection from abuse orders. I then joined the clinical faculty at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. After several years of teaching and practicing in Penn Law School's Legal Assistance Office, I came to WolfBlock in 2000, when the firm created my position: Director of Litigation Training and Pro Bono.

Shestack: Following Harvard Law School, I taught at two law schools and then became First Deputy City Solicitor of Philadelphia. In 1955 I joined Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis in Philadelphia and moved to WolfBlock in 1991. Early on, I joined the American Bar Association at the instigation of Jefferson Fordham, then Dean of Penn Law School, who argued that if you want to create change, you have to work from the inside. I long had a commitment to pro bono work, but as late as 1970, when I chaired the ABA's Section of Individual Rights, only three law firms had an official pro bono program: Schnader Harrison, Hogan & Hartson and Piper Marbury. Lou Pollak, Warren Christopher and I led a Section objective to change that condition. We hired Marna Tucker, then working for OEO, to visit law firms around the country to convince them to institute pro bono programs. She did; they did; and the rest is a felicitous history.

Over time, many of the issues the Section of Individual Rights championed at the ABA - including women's rights, civil rights, Native American rights, and human rights - have become mainstream initiatives. With that evolution has come an increasing emphasis on pro bono service. Today, almost every major law firm has a serious pro bono program. Indeed, many have pro bono counsel, such as Colleen.

Editor: You served as President of the ABA in 1997-98. What did you try to accomplish during your term of office?

Shestack: My focus was on professionalism. I believed that the law was becoming too much of a business, and I wished to advocate the standards and values that distinguished us as professionals. These included, first, a high standard of ethical conduct; second, independence - the ability to say no to a client; third, civility, seen as respect for human worth and dignity; fourth, learning to broaden one's horizons beyond CLE; fifth, our all-trumping obligation to the justice system; and, sixth, our obligation to perform pro bono service. I believe that all six elements are recognized as critical to our surviving as a profession.

Editor: WolfBlock has an enviable history of pro bono service. What is its origin and how has it evolved over time?

Coonelly: The firm has a history of pro bono and community service that goes back to its founding, more than a century ago. When I arrived in 2000 there was a great deal under way, and the creation of the position of Director of Litigation Training and Pro Bono was a reflection of the firm's desire to build on that long tradition.

The obligation to render pro bono services is enshrined in the rules of professional conduct for lawyers, and it is something that WolfBlock takes very seriously. At the same time, the law is a profession that requires education on a continuing basis.

Editor: Does the program have a particular focus?

Coonelly: The interests of our lawyers give the pro bono program its definition. One example is that a number of WolfBlock lawyers work in the area of child advocacy. In our New York office, Ken Roberts and Jennifer Beltrami work with Lawyers for Children, a leading professional not-for-profit organization dedicated to representing children in foster care. Stuart Shorenstein has, for two decades, regularly accepted court appointments from New York's Surrogate's Court as guardian ad litem for minors or people who have a disability. In Philadelphia, a number of our lawyers volunteer with the Support Center for Child Advocates, one of the most respected and successful volunteer support organizations in the country. Jim Redeker was a founder of this organization and Steve Miano is a longtime board member and volunteer. Other lawyers, including Charlotte Thomas, Jerry Shestack, Aliza Karetnick, Tim Lynch and Mike Cavadel, have represented children and their families in Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA") cases. In our Wilmington office, Todd Schiltz and Jennifer Barber Ranji have served as court-appointed attorneys guardian ad litem for needy children through Delaware's Office of the Child Advocate.

We frequently hold training sessions to better equip our lawyers to handle particular types of pro bono cases. For example, for the IDEA cases, we held a training seminar at the firm conducted by lawyers from the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia ("PILCOP"), a public interest law firm with considerable expertise in disability law and the representation of children and their families seeking access to special education services. Incidentally, Jerry Shestack was one of PILCOP's founders. It grew out of Attorney General Robert Kennedy's suggestion back in the 1960s that there were issues to be addressed in our part of the country as well as in the South.

Editor: It sounds as if there are plenty of opportunities for litigators. How about transactional lawyers?

Coonelly: There are lots of non-litigation opportunities. For example, Herman Fala, chair of the firm's Real Estate Department, together with Carolyn Maddaloni, provided substantial pro bono service to complete a building acquisition and the requisite financing for a nonprofit charter school in Philadelphia.

Phil Bower, in the firm's Environmental and Land Use Practice Group, and other lawyers, have worked with the Philadelphia Volunteers for the Indigent Program's "Tangled Title" project. This initiative helps low-income persons acquire legal title to their homes. In many instances, a home has been in a family for generations, but title has not passed to the current generation of occupiers. Without title, those family members face tremendous problems. Ultimately, they can be forced to vacate their homes, leading to homelessness, vacancy, blight, increased crime and decreased property values. The pro bono legal work, therefore, is not only a great service to the individuals concerned, but it also helps in the fight against urban blight. Other lawyers, such as William Greenbaum, Lani Dornfeld and David Ritter in Roseland, NJ; Dante Romanini in Cherry Hill, NJ, and Joseph Finkelstein in Philadelphia, have done transactional pro bono work on behalf of schools, shelters and soup kitchens. This work includes negotiating contracts and providing employment counseling, as well as real estate and finance advice and assistance. Another example of non-litigation work is the service by James Greenberg, in Cherry Hill, as a court-appointed receiver to collect and distribute restitution funds to fraud victims.

Editor: At WolfBlock do pro bono hours carry the same weight as billable hours in determining a lawyer's annual contribution to the firm?

Shestack: While we do not use a specific formula to determine the pro bono component of a lawyer's contribution - as I think we should - let me say that a recent death penalty case involved virtually half of one of our associate's time over a long period. Strikingly, our firm Chairman, Mark Alderman, and our Litigation Chairman, Norman Goldberger, saw to it that she received the largest bonus of any associate in the firm.

Editor: I gather that summer associates are permitted to participate in pro bono undertakings.

Coonelly: Absolutely. I write the incoming group of summer associates each spring to alert them to our pro bono engagements and to offer a variety of opportunities. While participation is voluntary, almost all of the summer associates take advantage of the program. This summer, some have worked on our ongoing "tangled title" or IDEA cases. Others have participated in summer associate research projects. Two students are participating in the Philadelphia Anti-Defamation League's annual summer associate research project. Additionally, this summer, two of our students are working on constitutional law research projects with Justice Learning, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, www.justicelearning.org. Two others have conducted legal research for the Paprobono.net website, www.paprobono.net.

Editor: Please tell us about the Jerome J. Shestack Fellowship.

Coonelly: The firm recognizes that the debts that many young attorneys have contracted in order to attend law school prevent them from joining a public interest law firm or otherwise engaging in poverty law practice. The Shestack Fellowship provides the salary, benefits and training to permit an attorney to work half of his or her time at the firm and the balance at a public interest placement. We have had Shestack Fellows at PILCOP and the ACLU. Our current Shestack Fellow, Joseph Litvin, is working at the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. The placement lasts for a year, and when these people return to the firm on a full-time basis they constitute a resource with respect to what is underway at the organization they have served. Our first two recipients of the Fellowship, Aliza Karetnick and Malia Brink, have continued their pro bono service. Their enthusiasm, in addition, has a very positive effect on the firm.

Editor: Would you share with us your thoughts about the impact that a strong pro bono program has on firm morale?

Shestack: When people wish to convey their pride in their law firm, more often than not they will talk about the firm's pro bono services - a death penalty case or political asylum case or helping a family with an autistic child, and similar cases. Whether or not the matter resulted in favorable publicity, it has made a difference in someone's life. Most of us identify with the idea of helping someone in need, and when that concept is part of a law firm's collective personality, everyone affiliated with the firm takes pride in it. Here's an experiment: Ask a partner or associate to look at a copy of their law school application. You will find that most said they wanted to do pro bono service.

I once gave a law school commencement address entitled "Joy and Pain in the Legal Profession." I won't go into the painful side, but much of the joy and satisfaction that I attempted to convey to those graduates derives from pro bono work. I know of no one who has engaged in this work who has not experienced satisfaction.

Please email the interviewees at ccoonelly@wolfblock.com or jshestack@schnader.com with questions about this interview.