Akin Gump: Projecting Firm Values Through Pro Bono Service

Sunday, August 1, 2004 - 01:00

Editor: Mr. McLean, would you tell our readers how you came to Akin Gump?

I came to Akin Gump a little over thirty years ago from government service. I was working for the National Labor Relations Board and had reached a point in my career at which I was beginning to consider private practice. Akin Gump was on the other side of one of the cases I was handling. They made me an offer, and I accepted. One of the very attractive things about the firm for me was its size - the office had seven lawyers!

Editor: Please describe your litigation practice.

The position of chairman is a full-time undertaking, and I have held the position for about a decade. Prior to becoming chairman I was involved in a number of different practice areas within litigation, with a particular focus on energy cases brought by the government against private-sector clients.

Editor: As chairman of the firm, you carry a great many responsibilities as head of a business enterprise and as spokesman for one of the country's leading law firms. Would you tell us about the challenges of wearing as many hats as you do?

The biggest challenge in my job is trying to allocate my time so that I'm using it in the most effective way possible to achieve the firm's goals and objectives. There is never enough time, and there are always a great many things that I ought to be working on but cannot get to. One of the things I do attend to, however, is making myself available to my partners. We are a general partnership, and I believe it is very important for every partner in the firm to think that, if he or she has an issue that deserves the attention of the chairman, they have access to him. I am also involved in business development and in dealing with the firm's clients, and specifically, in making certain that clients are satisfied and feel well-served. Charting the firm's course and developing a strategy for its future growth and success is another very big issue on my agenda. In addition to all of these things, I believe that each of the firm's offices ought to be involved in the community in which it practices. Since I am a proponent of leading by example, I must be so involved if I am to expect others to follow suit. All of this means that a very careful allocation of my time is in order.

Editor: You have expressed great pride in Akin Gump's pro bono program. For starters, please tell us about your own pro bono background.

I was an undergraduate and a law student during the 60s, a time when many people on campus were focused on the issues of social justice. The importance of using one's legal skills to serve those unable to pay for those skills, and to improve the system of justice, was instilled in me at a very early stage in my career. My first job out of law school was with the government, something I have always considered a public service undertaking. Throughout my career I have tried to remain personally involved in pro bono activities, and currently I am on the governing board of Neighborhood Legal Services here in Washington. The most significant contribution I can make, however, is to use my office as chairman to instill a strong commitment to public service and to the provision of legal services on a pro bono basis throughout the firm.

Editor: Can you tell us about the history of pro bono service at the firm?

Over the 30 years I have been at Akin Gump's Washington office, there has been a very substantial pro bono program, a reflection of the strong commitment of the DC Bar to pro bono service as well as that of the firm's leadership over this period. The American Bar Association guidelines on pro bono service really apply to individuals, but it is up to the law firms with which they are affiliated to provide a vehicle through which they can meet their obligations. In our case we have done this, at least in part, through a number of relationships of long standing with community organizations and legal service providers here in Washington: Neighborhood Legal Services, Legal Services for the Elderly, the Washington Lawyers Committee, to name a few. These relationships permit us to provide a wide variety of opportunities to our attorneys. While some of the cases we receive are relatively straightforward and easily handled within our existing case load - and I would point out that this type of case very often enables a young attorney to assume substantial responsibility at an early point in his or her professional development - many are challenging and difficult undertakings which require a substantial commitment on the part of the firm. I am thinking, in particular, of cases referred to us by the Lawyers Committee. We are fortunate as a firm in having the resources to take these matters on, and we welcome the opportunity to do significant work which, sometimes, has an impact far beyond the forum in which our attorneys are heard.

We have also attempted over the years to create an environment in which pro bono activities are perceived as reflecting the values that the firm seeks to uphold. How a firm handles its pro bono program says a great deal about it and about its people.

Editor: How is the program managed?

We are in transition from a structure in which each office was more or less autonomous in its pro bono efforts to a firm-wide organizational structure. Each of our offices has a partner who is in charge of that office's pro bono activities, and who is supported by a full-time staff person, and our present attempt to organize the program on a firm-wide basis is meant to coordinate these activities. This is meant to lead to a robust pro bono program which is national in scope and led by a partner who is engaged in this effort on a full-time basis.

Editor: Do you intend to give the program a particular focus?

We think it is important to have a variety of opportunities for our lawyers, so, no, we do not intend to give the program any particular focus. Having said that, I should point out that Akin Gump is a firm with substantial resources that can be brought to bear in particular areas. Substantial litigation matters call for extensive staffing, and only large firms are able to do this. We are one of them. We are fortunate in possessing substantial technological support for our litigation work, and those resources can be extremely important in the pro bono arena. We intend to use them. In addition, we have a number of partners who have been involved in death penalty cases in recent years and who are fully validated in the process of upholding the rights of criminal defendants. I am certain that is going to continue to be part of our pro bono program going forward. Our appellate practice - we were involved in the University of Michigan Law School case concerning diversity as an admissions criterion, for example - is going to continue to be a highlight of the program. Without giving the program a particular focus, we intend to utilize the firm's resources - human, financial and technological - to have the greatest possible impact.

Editor: Would you tell us something about the connection between firm morale and the firm's commitment to pro bono work?

There is a very close connection. A firm's commitment to pro bono service is, among other things, a statement of its willingness to provide the richest possible professional life for its people. The lawyer who has the opportunity to undertake this work through his or her firm tends to have a very positive attitude, I believe, not only about the work but also about the firm for making it available. It helps us recruit the young lawyers we need to carry on the quality of work necessary to sustain the firm's reputation, and it helps us retain them once they are on board.

Editor: How does the program play with the firm's clients? Do you ever partner with a client's law department in a pro bono project?

We have not yet partnered with lawyers from one of our client's law departments in a pro bono project, but we are looking for the right opportunity to do so. We find that our clients have a commitment to the communities in which they conduct their activities, and increasingly they are concerned as to whether the firms that provide them with legal services share that commitment. All things being equal, a firm with a strong pro bono program is going to be looked upon more favorably by corporate America than one without such a program. This has become, in recent years, a factor in our clients' evaluation process.

Editor: Would you tell us about some of the firm's recent successes in the pro bono arena?

In New York a number of our lawyers are involved with the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School, and we see an ongoing flow of quite significant work from the Center. We have also been engaged in high-profile work for the National Urban League, the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights and the Pro Bono Panel for the Second Circuit. We have also been involved in some very important work flowing out of the World Trade Center tragedy. We are always glad to have such work, of course. Most of what we do in the pro bono arena, however, is on behalf of a group of people who, for a variety of reasons, do not have access to our justice system. Perhaps it is there that the greatest rewards of pro bono service lie. One of our partners just received the NAACP's Foot Soldiers in the Sands Award for his ongoing work challenging the application of the death penalty.

Editor: Would you share with us some of your thoughts about the personal benefits that derive from pro bono service?

I have been involved in providing legal services for major corporations for over 30 years. Certainly there are high points, moments when your sense of accomplishment is very real. Those moments are simply not the same, however, as the ones which derive from having helped someone in real need, someone who, but for your help, might have lost everything that matters in this life. This is not something that can be taught, only experienced. And it is one of the most rewarding experiences that our profession offers. Mindful of that fact, at Akin Gump we are trying to make it available to all of our people. We like to think that it is one of the things that defines our firm.

Please email the interviewee at bmclean@akingump.com with questions about this interview.