The Secret Of Pro Bono Success: Knowing The Community

Wednesday, June 25, 2014 - 12:45

The Editor interviews Steven H. Schulman, Pro Bono Partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP.

Editor: You’ve now been pro bono practice leader at Akin Gump for nearly eight years. How would you describe the evolution of Akin Gump’s pro bono practice in these years?

Schulman: I think we took what was already a very strong program with, in particular, a lot of great death penalty work and interesting impact litigation. We expanded the base of our pro bono practice to make sure that everybody in the firm, no matter what office or what practice group they were in or what level they were at, had an opportunity to do interesting pro bono work that was both valuable to the community and rewarding to the individual attorney.

Editor: What goals do you have for the practice over the next two to three years?

Schulman: Although I’m very proud of some of the international pro bono work we’ve done, we haven’t concentrated on making sure that attorneys in our offices outside the United States have the same opportunities to do pro bono work that we have here in the United States. Obviously there are cultural, logistical and geographic reasons why lawyers who practice outside the United States do not have the same opportunities, but I would say that colleagues at some other firms, like DLA and Shearman & Sterling, have really done a tremendous job in building international pro bono practices. I see the great things they’re doing and want to make sure that our lawyers have those same opportunities.

Editor: Are there particular metrics you feel are appropriate to measure the progress of Akin Gump’s pro bono practice as time goes on?

Schulman: Something I do look at is that, in the eight years I’ve been here, we’ve moved our pro bono practice from about 38 hours per lawyer to consistently between 80 and 90 hours per lawyer per year. Given that we now have a strong track record in the U.S., it’s not realistic for us to be moving those numbers up substantially. I’m not saying that we couldn’t move it up to some degree, but where I think we will be looking for success is how many clients we can serve, what innovations we can bring to pro bono legal services and what successes we can have in given practice areas or affecting particular policies.

Editor: Would you describe how you motivate your lawyers to participate in the pro bono practice? Do you take advantage of their own motivation? Does it vary by individual?

Schulman: I would say that often motivation goes both ways. My younger lawyers motivate me, too. They often bring some of the best ideas we have to the firm. One of my colleagues, Carl Fleming, recently brought in a project called Power Africa. Carl joined us from the Millennium Challenge Corporation, initiating a really interesting global development matter that involves working with U.S. government agencies and others to expand Africa’s access to the energy grid.

Editor: What has happened with the firm’s Pro Bono Scholars Program? Does it continue to attract and satisfy top candidates?

Schulman: This year is our largest Pro Bono Scholars class. We had 10 Pro Bono Scholars in five offices. For most of them, their stint at the firm is concluding, before they go on to their legal services organizations. We’ve expanded the number of schools from which we’ve selected candidates. We’ve also expanded the legal services providers that our Pro Bono Scholars have worked for. That then expands the network we have within our pro bono practice and is continuing to bring in great young lawyers to the firm. We now have eight lawyers at the firm who are former Pro Bono Scholars, mostly here in DC but also two in Dallas and one in New York. This coming fall, we may have five more former Pro Bono Scholars joining the firm. Every year, we expand the former Pro Bono Scholars in our young attorney ranks, and we have continued to attract great law students into the program.

Editor: What kind of assignments do you give young lawyers when they come into the program?

Schulman: Lawyers in the Pro Bono Scholars Program spend four weeks at the firm. The first week is all orientation, including a three-day Pro Bono Scholars boot camp here in the DC office where all the Pro Bono Scholars from around the country come together. We have different seminars and learning events. While they’re here at the firm, they work almost exclusively on pro bono matters in a wide variety of areas. This year, they worked for the first time on a unified project examining how we can use state ethics rules to make sure that women who are being trafficked, when they are picked up on criminal charges for crimes like prostitution, aren’t being represented by their pimp’s lawyer — who obviously has a conflict of interest in keeping the trafficked woman in servitude rather than making sure that all her rights and defenses are presented in court.

Editor: The attraction of the program for the young lawyers is evident, but there has to be a benefit to the firm. Does the firm reap additional benefits from conducting the Program?

Schulman: I think it certainly is something that has added to the profile of the firm on law school campuses. I think it is a way, beyond the reputation of our great commercial practices, that the firm gets to be known to law students. The pro bono practice may be one of the easier notions for a law student to grasp intuitively, easier than understanding the intricacies of our oil and gas practice, for example. It’s an introduction into the firm and, hopefully, gets the law students interested in learning more about all our diverse practices around the country and around the world.

Editor: Recently you’ve announced some significant accomplishments in the pro bono practice at Akin Gump. How do you balance attention to matters that are humdrum but crucial to individual pro bono clients against attention to matters that attract media publicity, perhaps because they involve vindication of human rights or perhaps because they involve something high profile like human trafficking?

Schulman: Often press releases are published relating to significant victories, or awards are given because of a matter that has some amount of notoriety or perhaps is just off the beaten path. But the bread and butter of our pro bono practice is representing individuals in asylum cases, in social security disability cases and in landlord-tenant cases. It’s important to us that we continue that work. My partner Vernon Jordan often says that that is the most important work that we do: the work for individuals, the work that doesn’t get headlines. I think our lawyers appreciate that, and I think there’s a lot of satisfaction in seeing a disabled client finally get her benefits check or making sure a single mother and her children can stay in their affordable housing. It doesn’t take extra motivation on my part because the truth is my colleagues and I don’t do pro bono work for the headlines. Sure, it’s fun to do the work that gets the headlines, and it’s always nice to get them, but the reason we do the work is to help individuals and causes in our communities. I think that’s motivation enough for our lawyers to get involved.

Editor: Within your current working assignments, are there specific matters that you think deserve particular mention?

Schulman: One assignment that is likely to emerge from under the radar screen, now that my partner Mark MacDougall has won the ABA Death Penalty Award, has been Mark’s long-standing commitment to represent individuals in capital murder trials. This is a pro bono practice unique among large law firms: representing individuals not because they are innocent, not on appeal because something has gone wrong at the trial or in an earlier proceeding, but rather to ensure, when the state decides it is going to seek the ultimate penalty — death — that that individual has as good a representation as someone should have when her life is on the line. Mark has long partnered with the public defenders in South Carolina and has taken our associates down to South Carolina on some wonderful experiences. Katie Creely is a colleague here in DC who has worked on a number of the trials.  A trial that just ended, in which we represented Ernest Daise, resulted in the first unanimous life verdict — in other words, a unanimous vote against the death penalty — in South Carolina in almost a dozen years.

Editor: In an interview a few years ago with MCC, you spoke about cooperating with one of your firm’s large corporate clients in using a Medical-Legal Partnership (MLP) with a local hospital and a local Legal Aid organization to address the problems faced by employee-patients and by their attending medical providers. Has Akin Gump been able to apply the MLP device elsewhere?

Schulman: We definitely have. We helped Walmart expand into Houston at the Texas Children’s Hospital and have taken on matters through Houston Volunteer Lawyers. In Dallas we’re working with Dallas Children’s Hospital and Legal Aid of Northwest Texas to represent children and their parents in special education matters. We also are sponsoring two Equal Justice Works Fellows in the MLP space. One fellow, cosponsored with Walmart, is working at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, and another is at the LA VA Hospital, working with homeless veterans who suffer from traumatic brain injury or PTSD. I was proud to have both of them attend the National MLP Conference where the firm won the ABA’s MLP Award this past year.

Editor: You were quoted at length quite recently about getting the most out of a firm’s pro bono work. Can you give us some of your most important “tips” on that topic?

Schulman: I think the most important tip I can give is that, as in any other job, a lot of it is just being out there in the community, hearing what is going on, meeting with legal services organizations and understanding what their needs are, but also getting out around the firm, knowing people in the firm and listening to what issues motivate and interest them so that we can find opportunities. I think the biggest tip is resisting the temptation to sit at your desk all day because, like all legal jobs, there’s a lot of emailing and working on the computer. I think the biggest tip for somebody running a pro bono practice is to get out there, get to meet people both within the firm and within the community. That helps to match people and to bring together different ideas among different practice groups, different offices and different levels of attorneys that won’t happen if you just send out emails and sit in your office.

Editor: That’s even more true if you’re hoping to expand outside the U.S.

Schulman: Yes. Although that’s going to be harder, since it requires traveling around the world to do it. But I am planning on going to London this fall. Again, I know a lot of my colleagues at other law firms do travel overseas and have provided a great model for us to follow to expand our international pro bono practice.


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