(WOMENSENEWS)--When Erin Smith, an attorney at the Washington law firm of Covington and Burling first drove to visit a client in the sprawling South Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla, Calif., she entered a world far apart from San Francisco's financial district where her firm has offices.
Smith and two colleagues were escorted through barbed wire passages and fenced boxes to a small windowless room with four chairs and a table. Here, they met W.B., a 46-year-old survivor of domestic abuse who had been incarcerated for half her life on a murder charge. For reasons of privacy, the firm did not release the client's full name.
Law Students Building a Better Legal Profession was started by Stanford Law School students in January 2007 and now has a national board with students from Stanford, Yale and Harvard law school and a Stanford professor.
It released its first annual diversity rankings in October 2007, using publicly available information from the National Association for Legal Career Professionals to create rankings in five major markets. Its diversity reports are designed to help students decide where to work after graduation.
The Better Legal list gives the top five American Lawyer pro bono firms the following rankings:
The Better Legal list's top-ranked firm for female partners are the Baker and McKenzie offices in Northern California with 32.7 percent women and, for female associates, the Carter Ledyard office in New York with 64.6 percent women.
In W.B.'s case, the lawyers worked for free with the San Francisco-based California Habeas Project to invoke a state law that allows a case review for some survivors of domestic violence. Covington lawyers put in 1,200 hours on their client's case in 2007, equivalent to seven or eight months of an associate's billable time at many large firms, and are preparing to file a petition for release. They also arranged for a private detective to search for original witnesses and experts to testify about trauma, all on the firm's tab.
Although there is no exact assessment of the amount of pro bono work that aids women, the value of pro bono work cannot be underestimated, said Mark Schickman, a San Francisco lawyer who is chair of the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service. "Pro bono" literally means "for the public good."
"To the extent one is trying to serve the needs of America's poor, this, unfortunately, affects women more," said Schickman.
The Chicago-based American Bar Association asks lawyers to spend 50 hours each year on pro bono work for the needy, and the national average, said Schickman, is 39 hours a year.
That commitment was doubled and even tripled by the top five firms named on the pro bono ranking released in July 2007 by the American Lawyer, a trade publication, which will be releasing its new rankings in early July. Firms use the highly competitive rankings to promote business and recruit new lawyers.
Covington Topped the List
At Covington, the highest-ranked firm for pro bono service in 2007, lawyers delivered more than three times the ABA commitment, averaging 156.6 hours of service per lawyer with 73.7 percent of lawyers delivering more than 20 hours each year. Covington's 650 lawyers are in five offices worldwide.
Rounding out the top five pro bono rankings were Patterson Belknap Webb and Tyler (second with 119.3 average hours; 91.8 percent over 20 hours); Jenner and Block (third with 127.5 average hours, 82.4 percent over 20); Debevoise and Plimpton (fourth with 140.8 average hours; 66.3 percent over 20); and Arnold and Porter (fifth with 130 average hours, 73.1 over 20).
Each firm continues to pay lawyers their full compensation for time spent on pro-bono projects.
Women's eNews' survey of these top five pro bono programs found that they took on difficult cases for female clients that involved issues such as female genital mutilation, transgender identity, parental rights and protection from domestic violence.
At Covington and Burling, which has ranked No. 1 on the pro bono list for six of the past 11 years, two lawyers work full-time coordinating pro bono projects.
Pro bono counsel Anne Proctor ran through a list of cases helping women: a case on equity in government contracting filed on behalf of the U.S. Women's Chamber of Commerce; asylum for a teacher jailed in Cameroon for mistakenly telling her students the president had died; and challenging a conviction of a domestic violence victim in New York. The firm also places lawyers at legal aid centers where women are many of the clients.
Patterson Belknap, second on the pro bono list, is a New York-based firm with approximately 200 attorneys. In 2006, it devoted 20,000 attorney hours to pro bono work--legal services that would be valued at more than $10 million if charged to private clients.
The firm coordinates with several nonprofit organizations in New York City, including InMotion, formerly called the Network for Women's Services, an organization that helps domestic abuse survivors with legal orders and low-income women in matrimonial, family and immigration law, according to Lisa E. Cleary, a partner in litigation who heads the firm's pro bono committee.
In 2007, the case of Ms. A, a transgender woman from Malaysia who came to the United States 18 years ago, was referred by a bar association to Patterson Belknap lawyers. For safety and privacy reasons, her name was withheld. She searched for eight years for a lawyer to handle her asylum application before the Patterson Belknap team, guided by David Glaser and Amin Kassam, agreed to help.
Her application faced particular difficulty because asylum requests normally must be filed within a year of arrival in the United States. Patterson lawyers argued that Ms. A should be granted a "changed circumstances" exception because of her hormone therapy and physiological adjustments. The lawyers tracked down the leading expert on gender and sexuality in Malaysia, a professor in Atlanta, to support the application. Ms. A received a grant of asylum.
Jenner and Block
No. 3 firm Jenner and Block, headquartered in Chicago, sends out messages describing pro bono projects three times a day to its 500 lawyers. E. Lynn Grayson, a partner who specializes in environmental law, readily grabs projects that help women.
"There's a tremendous amount of gratification for attorneys in doing pro bono," said Grayson, who in 2006 helped incorporate the Working Women's History Project in Chicago, which brings recognition to women in all areas of labor.
Grayson and other firm lawyers also have an ongoing relationship with WINGS (Women in Need Growing Stronger), an emergency shelter and transitional services program in Chicago for women and children who are escaping violence and homelessness. The legal work ranges from taxation to human resources: "Everything that a company deals with, they deal with," said Grayson.
Each year female lawyers at Jenner head to the shelters in jeans and T-shirts to help planting, painting and spring cleaning. While not part of the calculation of pro bono hours, the lawyers participate as a community service.
Debevoise and Plimpton
In New York, No. 4 firm Debevoise and Plimpton routinely accepts cases from Sanctuary for Families, a program that aids domestic abuse survivors, and InMotion. After taking the domestic abuse case of a Bronx woman they identified as Yolanda R., Derek S. Tarson and other lawyers realized she had an additional pressing concern.
She wanted to raise her three children in a healthier environment in Georgia, nearer to her family. But a New York family court judge ordered her to move back to New York, where the father lived. "There is a presumption that unless it's going to further the best interests of the child, they should stay put," said Tarson.
The cost and difficulty of appealing was out of the reach for the client, who lived on Social Security disability. Debevoise decided to make an appeal. Up to four lawyers worked on the case, amassing 1,412 hours of attorney time and 297 hours of additional staff time. The appellate court granted the right to a new hearing and they retried the case in family court with additional evidence. In September 2007, the court ruled that Yolanda R. could move to Georgia with her children. "The absolute joy in her voice was just incredible," said Tarson.
Debevoise has 700 lawyers in its five overseas and two U.S. offices. The firm also worked with the constitutional litigation clinic at Rutgers Law School to secure a jury verdict in federal court for a woman who was abused in an immigration detention facility in New Jersey.
Arnold and Porter
The Washington, D.C., firm Arnold and Porter, No. 5 on the list, partnered with Tahirih Justice Center to assist immigrant women who are abused, trafficked or endangered in a variety of legal actions.
In one case, six Arnold and Porter lawyers spent hundreds of hours developing an amicus brief in the appeal of a Guinean woman, identified only as M.B.B. She had been subjected to female genital mutilation but had been denied asylum on that basis.
The brief to the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals argued that the woman suffered permanent and continuing harm from the practice and was fearful that her minor daughter would be subjected to the same practice if she were forced to return.
"It's part of a larger human rights campaign to show that FGM is a continuous act of persecution. That's a concept that was recently called into doubt. It's important for the law to set the record straight," said Annie Khalid Hussain, an attorney at Arnold and Porter.
The FGM case is of special concern because it could end up in the U.S. Supreme Court, said Rena E. Cutlip-Mason, director of Legal Services at Tahirih, based in Falls Church, Va.
"We have clients here, if it is upheld, who could equally have no relief. We wouldn't be able to do a Second Circuit brief with the manpower we have on staff," said Cutlip-Mason.
Cynthia L. Cooper is an independent journalist in New York with a background as a lawyer.