New England And Boston - Law Firms Holland & Knight's Boston Office: Espousing The Value Of Pro Bono Service

Saturday, May 1, 2004 - 01:00
James D. Smeallie

James D. Smeallie

Editor: Mr. Smeallie, would you give our readers something of your background and experience?

Smeallie: I am a graduate of Yale College and the University of Virginia Law School, and am now a partner in the Boston office of Holland & Knight. I was previously a partner at Sherburne, Powers & Needham, a Boston law firm that merged with Holland & Knight in 1998.My area of specialization is business litigation, and I am also head of the firm's national education practice.From 2001-2002, I served as the Executive Partner at Holland & Knight's Boston office, and I am now the office's pro bono partner.

Editor: Holland & Knight has an enviable reputation for the pro bono efforts of its attorneys. Obviously, this did not just happen. Would you give us some historical background on this development?

Smeallie:It all started with the late Chesterfield Smith, who was the firm's chairman for many years. Almost 40 years ago, at a time when organized pro bono legal services programs were in their infancy, he believed that a commitment to community service should be a core value of the firm, and his personal commitment to this principle came to infuse the entire Holland & Knight family. Chesterfield said that community service was not only an integral part of any good lawyer's practice, but that it almost inevitably resulted in a prosperous and successful lawyer and law firm. Under his guidance, the firm's pro bono efforts evolved into a model for lawyers in private practice.

Editor: Please tell us about the firm's Community Services Team? How did this originate? How is the group staffed?

Smeallie:Our Community Services Team is a group of lawyers who do nothing but pro bono work.This permits the firm to take on some very substantial - and important Ñ cases and to allocate sufficient resources to those cases.These are almost always impact cases, and they are often controversial. They are selected, in the main, to have ramifications beyond the case itself and to benefit people - usually poor people Ñ who are similarly situated. The firm has provided the Community Services Team with a substantial annual budget, and it has retained Steve Hanlon, a nationally celebrated lawyer in the field, to lead the group.It now includes four full-time attorneys supplemented by the Chesterfield Smith Fellows and by many lawyers across the entire firm who give a portion of their time.

Editor: Can you tell us about some of the Community Services Team's success stories?

Smeallie: One of the most famous success stories involves the firm's representation of the African-American survivors of a town called Rosewood that was destroyed in 1923 by white people from surrounding communities. We brought suit and recovered over $2 million for those survivors. In addition, we represented thousands of low-income, high-risk pregnant women who were unwitting subjects of medical experimentation at a teaching hospital in Florida. We achieved a settlement there in excess of $3.8 million. We have also represented thousands of African-American prospective renters systematically denied housing. Again, our efforts resulted in a $3.4 million settlement. On a number of occasions we have represented death row inmates who were erroneously convicted, and we have been able to get these convictions reversed. Just last month your publication reported on the U.S. Supreme Court overturning the death sentence of Delma Banks, a long-time Texas death row inmate. His legal team, headed by George Kendall of our Community Services Team, argued the case before the Supreme Court and is now engaged in working on having his conviction set aside as well.These extraordinary achievements are made possible by the firm's commitment to the Community Services Team.

Editor: You mentioned the Chesterfield Smith Fellowship Program.Would you elaborate on this?

Smeallie: The Chesterfield Smith Fellowship Program provides the opportunity for some extraordinary law school graduates to work at the firm exclusively on pro bono matters, with all the compensation and other benefits of associate status.Very often these people begin their relationship with the firm as summer associates. During that period they work on both pro bono and paying client matters. Following graduation from law school and their arrival at the firm as first-year associates, the Chesterfield Smith Fellows work with the Community Services Team on pro bono matters for two years, following which they begin to work in one of the firm's regular practice areas.While they transition into traditional compensated work, these young lawyers continue to handle a significant amount of pro bono cases. The Chesterfield Smith Fellowship Program has earned the firm a wonderful reputation at the major law schools, and we think of it as a spectacular success in terms of our ability to recruit the highest quality of law school graduates.

Editor: How does pro bono activity figure in the firm'sretention of attorneys?

Smeallie:Income, opportunities for specialization, interesting clients, and so on are all important, but I think job satisfaction really boils down to the people one works with and the values the firm espouses. These are subjective things, and they are hard to quantify, but there is no question in my mind that retention is benefited by the firm's active encouragement of pro bono activity. People feel good about themselves, about their colleagues, and about the firm when the firm culture encourages giving a hand to those in need. Pro bono work serves as a great morale booster at Holland & Knight.

Editor: Would you tell us about the firm's Boston office and its pro bono work in the community?

Smeallie: We are involved in a number of programs in Boston, and we handle a considerable variety of pro bono cases on behalf of poor people or organizations that serve poor people.We partner with many community organizations such as the Women's Lunch Place.That organization provides, in addition to meals, aid to homeless women in a variety of ways. From time to time, the women have legal issues, and we do what we can to help them in this area. Likewise, we are now committed to assisting the Boston Medical Center's Family Advocacy Program. Many of the physicians there found that their patients had complicated legal issues, and we have been able to be of considerable service to those individuals and families.

Editor: Please tell us about how all of these efforts are administered and monitored.How do you handle the billable hours issue, for example?
Smeallie:Many firms, to encourage pro bono work, give billable hour credit. That is, in tracking lawyer productivity, time spent on pro bono work is considered to be the same as time spent on paying client work.That is fine, but we felt that without actual dollar credit given to this work there continued to be a perception that it was not as valuable as work for a paying client. To dispel this perception, we developed a formula this past year which accords dollar credit as well. Our pro bono hours have increased dramatically, and I think much of this is the result of the dollar crediting.

We strive to have each lawyer spend 50 hours a year doing pro bono work. We track pro bono time, and we do know whether a lawyer is doing too much or too little in this area.

Editor: You have mentioned how helpful the firm's reputation for pro bono work is in your hiring efforts. Is that true with respect to your relations with clients? Is pro bono perceived as a plus?

Smeallie: The fact that we dedicate so much of our time to pro bono efforts says something to clients about the culture, personality and values of the firm they have retained to handle their legal work.Many are aware of these efforts, and I think some of them take a certain pride in being represented by Holland & Knight.I know that among firm materials which we send to clients and prospective clients, our pro bono brochure gets the most positive comments.

Editor: Are you satisfied with the firm's showing against the ABA's standards for pro bono service?

Smeallie: We take a great deal of pride in what we have accomplished, but of course we can always do better.We are now very close to achieving 50pro bono hours per attorney annually.I am convinced that we will.

Editor: What about the future? What kinds of things would you like to see the firm undertake in this particular arena?

Smeallie: I am very excited about the Community Services Team. It has taken on a number of very important cases in the past few years, and we look forward to being able to not only continue with this effort, but also to expand on it. Holland & Knight is a very large law firm, one that has the resources, both material resources and human talent, to make a real difference in the pro bono area. I join my colleagues in taking a great deal of pride in what we have accomplished in the past, and I look forward to even greater achievements in the future.

Please email Mr. Smeallie at with questions about this interview.