Esther Lardent

(WOMENSENEWS)–Jamesina King, a lawyer in Freeport, Sierra Leone, needed sophisticated research on international human rights to complete a report to the government on the treatment of female prisoners in her country, but had no budget to pay for the work.

King, who works for the organization LAWYERS–an acronym for Legal Access through Women Yearning for Equality, Rights and Social Justice–found help from what might seem an unlikely source: mega-sized, 88-year-old business law firm Covington & Burling, which has offices in Washington, New York, San Francisco, London and Brussels. Under the firm’s “pro bono” program, a team of attorneys dove in and, at no charge, helped King explain needed prison reforms, said Anne Proctor, the pro bono counsel at the 650-lawyer firm.

“Reform in the prisons and judiciary have started,” King wrote in a thank-you letter to the firm in 2006. She wrote that the Women in Prison Report prepared with the firm’s assistance was directly credited by government institutions for change, including the release of a substantial number of women from the prison.

“Pro bono” means “for the good” in Latin and is a longstanding legal tradition. Attorneys are asked to provide 50 hours of pro bono work each year under a model ethical rule passed by the American Bar Association in 1993, explained Esther F. Lardent, president and chief executive officer of the Pro Bono Institute at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C. “Pro bono feminae” translated from Latin means “for the good of women.”

The goal of the pro bono tradition is to aid those in society who cannot afford legal services and, each year, legal journal American Lawyer scores law firms on their pro bono service in its July edition, published mid-June. Lardent’s organization challenges large firms to devote 3 to 5 percent of their billable time to that work.

Women’s organizations, women’s issues and individual women with complex legal problems but few resources receive substantial assistance without a fee from the nation’s premiere law firms, according to a Women’s eNews survey of the top five firms on American Lawyer’s 2006 report card. (Editor’s note: Law firms, as private partnerships, are not required to disclose this information publicly. This report is drawn from descriptions provided by the firms’ representatives.)

In 2006, thousands of hours of donated services by those five firms were devoted to fighting domestic abuse, supporting reproductive rights, challenging sexual assault, establishing microcredit that aids women’s self-sufficiency and other women’s projects.

Women Benefit Beyond Their Numbers

Doorways for Women and Families shelter under construction.

Although no statistics measure pro bono cases by gender, women benefit beyond their numbers because they represent a greater share of those in financial need, said Lardent. She noted, for example, that many firms are applying their expertise in banking to increase the capacity of nonprofit organizations that engage in microfinance, or tiny business loans promoted as a way to alleviate women’s poverty worldwide.

“A number of firms are involved with micro-enterprise, here and overseas,” she said. “A disproportionate amount of the loans are to women and they are empowering women to have a different role in their communities.”

Firms take on cases that could not be brought without the muscle of a major firm. Ten attorneys from New York firm Debevoise & Plimpton, the nation’s 37th largest and second in American Lawyer pro bono scoring, put in 5,700 attorney work hours in 2006 on behalf of 16 female inmates who have claims of sexual harassment against male prison guards in New York state.

Working with the Prisoners’ Rights Project of the New York-based Legal Aid Society, the firm conducted 31 depositions for a federal lawsuit, and is planning another 70, said Maeve O’Connor, a partner at Debevoise who is overseeing the litigation. O’Connor’s regular assignments are in securities litigation, but having worked at a prison clinic in law school she jumped into the project.

“We may have a part in improving the lives of women prisoners,” she said. “That’s the heart of it for me: to make a difference.” Other Debevoise & Plimpton projects help women seek asylum in the United States in both domestic violence and political cases.

At Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr (WilmerHale), the nation’s 14th largest firm with 1,181 attorneys, pro bono counsel Christopher J. Herrling screens and circulates projects. The Washington, D.C., firm with offices in 10 other cities and ranked third on the pro bono list, logged more than 100,000 pro bono hours in 2006, said Herrling.

Litigating for Abortion Rights

Kimberly Parker, a WilmerHale partner who specializes in white-collar criminal defense, drew upon prior experience at the Reproductive Freedom Project of the American Civil Liberties Union to litigate a challenge against the first federal ban on an abortion procedure for the Washington-based National Abortion Federation. “I think it’s important for lawyers in private practice to give back,” said Parker.

The ban was struck down by the federal district court in New York and an appellate court, although those decisions were effectively overturned when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ban in related cases in April. WilmerHale has also represented immigrants facing domestic violence and the New York-based Women’s Sports Foundation in pursuit of equal opportunities for female athletes. The firm also assists the Grameen Foundation in Dhaka, Bangladesh, deliver microcredit loans to women in economically stressed countries.

Hogan & Hartson has approximately 820 open pro bono matters, said Patricia Brannan, a partner who heads the firm’s Community Services Department. The firm, with 22 offices worldwide and headquarters in Washington, D.C., is the nation’s 21st largest and is ranked fourth in pro bono contributions. Nearly 89 percent of Hogan’s 1,043 lawyers spend more than 20 hours during the year on pro bono work.

In 2006, lawyers navigated the legal and financial transactions to help Doorways for Women and Families, a program for women facing abuse and homelessness in Arlington, Va., break ground for a new emergency shelter. The facility will have 11 bedrooms and 21 beds when it opens in the fall.

Lawyers from Hogan & Hartson also helped a nonprofit, Family and Children Services of D.C., acquire new headquarters. In New York, lawyer Cristi Perez-Labiosa helped an immigrant client of Sanctuary for Families–a service and shelter program for domestic violence victims–retain an order of protection against stalking and harassment from an abusive husband who tried to appeal it.

“People in the firm come to me with projects every day. We get calls, e-mails, letters. We talk them through,” said Brannan.

$1.5 Million in Service

Lawyers from Washington-based Arnold & Porter, ranked fifth on the pro bono list, traveled to Toledo, Ohio, in 2006 to represent the state and county affiliates of the League of Women Voters in a lawsuit to enforce voting rights. Eighteen firm lawyers and eight legal assistants worked on the case, clocking up $1.5 million in hours, said Arnold & Porter partner Jim Joseph.

“The amounts are astronomical,” he said, describing painstaking efforts to review voter records from the 2004 election, uncover irregularities, interview witnesses and prepare a legal challenge to the lack of equal access to the voting booth.

In 2006, Joseph personally devoted 1,230 hours valued at $399,717.50 to pro bono work, much of it for Washington-based NARAL Pro-Choice America. The firm also secured permits for the massive March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C., in 2004.

“Arnold & Porter’s history came from pro bono representation,” said Joseph. “This work continues that tradition.” Arnold & Porter defended academics and government employees during the anti-communist push of the McCarthy era and advocated in the Supreme Court for the rights of indigent people to have legal representation.

The law firms are rated for pro bono efforts by American Lawyer based on a combination of the number of hours donated per lawyer and the percentage of lawyers who contribute more than 20 hours per year. Starting salaries at the firms range from $135,000 to $145,000, and lawyers who participate in pro bono efforts continue to earn their regular pay.

The American Lawyer’s 2006 pro bono rankings of hours donated per attorney were: No. 1 Covington & Burling with 137.5 annual pro bono hours per lawyer; followed by Debevoise & Plimpton (131.6 hours per lawyer); Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr (119.6 hours per lawyer); Arnold & Porter (111.2 hours per lawyer); and Hogan & Hartson (89.7 hours per lawyer). Women’s eNews will follow up this year’s pro bono rankings with a similar Pro Bono Feminae survey.

Firms not only compete for pro bono scores, but use pro bono as a way to attract top recruits, seeking out projects that require sophistication and expertise.

“We personalize the pro bono program to have it respond to the individual interests of each attorney,” said Anne Proctor of Covington & Burling, which assists 170 nonprofits, including Finca International, a Washington, D.C., organization that offers microcredit loans in war-torn countries and benefited from 160 hours of lawyer services.

“We feel like we’re really helping it to develop,” Proctor said. “It raises the capacity of women around the world to address some of the basic problems of poverty.”

Cynthia L. Cooper is an independent journalist in New York City who has a background as a lawyer.

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For more information:

Pro Bono Institute at Georgetown University Law Center

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