A Visible Pro Bono Commitment At Kramer Levin

Sunday, August 1, 2004 - 01:00

Editor: Tell us about your role at your firm.

I've spent most of my career at Kramer Levin, practicing corporate and bankruptcy law for approximately 20 years before becoming the firm's full-time Managing Partner in August 2000. Working with our Executive Committee and our Executive Director, I oversee the firm's day-to-day operations, long-term planning, and infrastructure and business development.

Editor: What is Kramer Levin's general philosophy and approach to pro bono work?

Given our roots, it is no surprise that pro bono has always been important at Kramer Levin. Our founders all had backgrounds in public service. Over the last 35 years, we have grown into a large, full-service firm, and with any growing institution there will be a wide diversity of viewpoints and attitudes on all subjects, but pro bono work has continued to be important to our firm for a number of reasons.
First, and most fundamentally for me, it is important for even the most businesslike and profit-oriented institution to give something back to the community - for most of us, in one way or another, it just comes with the territory. We also have a more specific ethical obligation as lawyers to donate our legal services to help make the justice system work for those who can't afford to pay for representation. That's why we have signed the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge, pledging along with most other major firms to devote at least three percent of our time to pro bono legal services, with the majority of that time focused on service to the poor.

There are also pragmatic business reasons why the firm maintains its pro bono commitment. Particularly in the New York market, pro bono is an important part of the recruiting message of most top law firms, and ensuring that the message reflects reality is important for sustaining morale and retaining good associates.

Editor: What are the general policies and approaches that govern your pro bono program?

First, while we regard pro bono as an important responsibility, we believe that it should be embraced voluntarily - "from the heart," as it were. We therefore do not require attorneys to do pro bono work, although we encourage it. Our attorneys have a great deal of freedom in selecting their pro bono projects. Associates as well as partners may seek out causes and organizations that they believe in and, with appropriate screening for conflicts and other concerns, initiate and pursue matters they find most rewarding.

It is also our policy to treat pro bono work as real firm work. Pro bono matters are supervised by senior attorneys to the same extent as comparable paying matters. They are included in attorney evaluations, and associate pro bono time is counted towards bonus eligibility. We obviously encourage attorneys to maintain an appropriate balance between billable and non-billable projects over the course of their careers, and in particular we frown upon very junior attorneys spending excessive time on pro bono, or any other work, without appropriate supervision and oversight. With those necessary limitations, we believe that we provide a favorable environment for attorneys who wish to build meaningful pro bono work into their overall professional careers.

Editor: What is the administrative and leadership structure of your pro bono program?

We have a Pro Bono Committee that includes partners and associates from many different departments, to encourage participation throughout the firm. The Chair of our Pro Bono Committee for a number of years has been Jeffrey Trachtman, a litigation partner who started with the firm as an associate in 1986 and has been active in pro bono matters ever since. Jeff has brought great enthusiasm and creativity to his role, and with his leadership we adopted a number of innovative practices that are now common in other firms, including providing structured pro bono opportunities to our summer associates and creating a detailed Pro Bono Annual Report that has become one of our most attractive recruiting and marketing pieces.

Many other partners also enthusiastically support and, indeed, participate in pro bono activities at the firm. One of our name partners, Gary Naftalis, serves on the board of The Legal Aid Society, succeeding another partner, Charlotte Fischman. Another name partner, Ezra Levin, devotes hundreds of hours every year to public service activities through the Jewish Community Relations Council and other groups. David Frankel, a litigation partner, invested significant time over three years spearheading a class action on behalf of poor children with asthma in the New York City shelter system, which led to a far-reaching settlement benefiting thousands of poor kids. Incidentally, our work on that case earned us Legal Aid's Exceptional Pro Bono Publico and Public Service Law Firm Award for 2000.

You also can't discuss pro bono at Kramer Levin without remembering Marvin Frankel, another one of our name partners, who passed away in 2002. Marvin was a former federal judge, longtime Chair of the Lawyers' Committee for Human Rights, now known as Human Rights First, and a remarkable public and private lawyer for more than 50 years. His active involvement in pro bono work and his mentoring of multiple generations of junior lawyers are important parts of our firm's history.

Editor: Does Kramer Levin's pro bono program focus in any particular areas?

Because our program is shaped by the interests of individual lawyers, it is quite diverse. We do a lot of individual poverty law matters in such areas as housing, Social Security disability benefits, and political asylum, and we maintain a full-time rotation position at South Brooklyn Legal Services in which associates represent low-income tenants in Housing Court. We also take on larger matters that we think will have an impact, like the asthma case, and we do a lot of work in the civil rights and civil liberties area, including free speech, Establishment Clause matters, and prisoner rights. We have been particularly active in the lesbian and gay rights area, including filing briefs in Dale v. Boy Scouts and Lawrence v. Texas.

And, of course, our pro bono work is not limited to litigation: our transactional lawyers do dozens of projects each year for nonprofit social service, arts, and religious organizations. For example, real estate partner Michael Korotkin recently handled a major transaction for Coalition for the Homeless, helping it acquire and finance a new headquarters building that will also house other nonprofit organizations in lower Manhattan.

Editor: What are some other of your more exciting recent matters?

Well, right now we are proud to be working with Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund in litigating the principal case in New York City seeking to establish the right of same-sex couples to equal marriage rights. We have put significant resources into assisting Lambda with this high profile suit. That effort is being led by Jeff Trachtman and Norm Simon, a senior associate of the firm. Another rewarding recent case was a habeas petition prosecuted by Eric Tirschwell, a special counsel who served for several years as a prosecutor in the Eastern District. Eric took the case at the request of a federal judge and managed to overturn the conviction of a man who had served 12 years for robbery based on a highly unreliable eyewitness account that was never cross-examined by his prior lawyer.

Editor: What benefits do you see for the firm and its clients as a result of maintaining an active pro bono practice?

There are several. As I noted before, pro bono is important to recruiting. We find that many highly qualified and motivated candidates care about pro bono - either because they want to participate in it or because they see it as an indication of a firm's values. Most of the big institutional firms in New York have deep, longstanding commitments to community service and pro bono work.

Beyond that, pro bono can provide a useful vehicle for training and professional development. It often permits junior lawyers to have client contact and handle matters on their own, with appropriate supervision, earlier than they would likely be able to on larger paying matters. Involvement in pro bono work may more generally enhance an attorney's sense of professionalism and enthusiasm for practice. Better experience and heightened professional commitment lead to improved morale and retention, all of which helps the firm and its clients.

In addition, we believe that a visible pro bono commitment helps the firm's reputation with judges and other community leaders. When a judge sees us advocating for the poor without expectation of collecting a fee, I think it enhances our credibility and stature when we are back before that judge on behalf of a paying client.

A strong culture of community service is valued and respected as well by our paying clients. With the growth of the corporate responsibility movement, large corporations are increasingly realizing that being responsible citizens and giving back to the community are good for business, and some have started to require a demonstration of such commitment from their law firms in much the same way that clients have long sought information about their law firms' diversity performance. But even clients not actively focused on community service seem to appreciate knowing that we have this commitment. Several of our partners send our Pro Bono Annual Report to their clients and have received warm and encouraging feedback.
Finally, pro bono can play a more direct role in nurturing relationships with paying clients. We have done some rewarding projects for charitable organizations with which our clients are personally involved, and we have also explored the possibility of launching pro bono projects jointly with our clients' in-house counsel, which we think would provide excellent synergy in serving our community service and client development goals.

Editor: I take it you see nothing inconsistent in being a successful law firm and having a vigorous pro bono program.

Well, of course, we are in business to serve our paying clients and to be profitable - without that there would be no firm and no opportunity to do pro bono work. But at the same time, pro bono work is important to many of our most valued colleagues. Properly managed, it does not detract from our main mission but in fact enhances it in many ways.

Please email the interviewee at ppearlman@kramerlevin.com with questions about this interview.