November 15, 2015

Lawyers without Borders: Business Lawyers Help the Oppressed Overcome Boundaries through Pro Bono Service

Technology – perhaps most notably, the Internet – has profoundly changed how the world does business. The world is now a smaller place with little boundaries for those who make billion dollar deals happen. We make these deals, or form joint ventures, or launch new businesses with people we may have never met without the limitless connections technology affords us. Technology has improved access to information, markets, and capital. It has streamlined the way transactions are proposed, negotiated, and closed. It has led to innovation and permitted the cultivation of that innovation at lower costs and with shorter time to market. It has given us the power to connect with each other across the barriers of culture, distance, and language. It has made possible the trade of goods and services between countries and across continents. It has created a global economy – one world connected by fiber, Ethernet, and Wi-Fi. It has erased those imaginary lines on the map that once demarcated where one nation ended and the next began, that is, if you live in the business world.

Step outside of the business world and you will see that those imaginary lines on the map are far more than just metaphorical lines drawn in the sand. For many, often the most marginalized of our society, those imaginary lines are barbed wire fences and prison walls that separate them from their loved ones, that hold them hostage to relentless violence and persecution, and that snuff out any chance of a life without fear, violence, and oppression.

Fortunately, more and more business lawyers are stepping outside of the business world and recognizing the reality that exists within these borders and outside of their comfort zone. They have decided to look beyond the keyboard and do something about the violence, persecution, and denial of human dignity. What inspires business lawyers to take this leap outside the comforts of the business world varies, but what unites them all is a desire to serve the public good.

My firm, Hunton & Williams LLP, partners with several organizations that provide attorneys with the opportunity to represent those seeking refuge and asylum in the United States. Among those organizations are Human Rights First, Catholic Charities Legal Services, the NYC Bar Association Refugee Assistance Project, and Kids in Need of Defense (KIND). These organizations connected my firm’s attorneys with clients from several West African countries, China, Tibet, Colombia, Haiti, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, and Turkey, as well as with unaccompanied minors who are facing the immigration system alone within our own borders. In 2014, 120 attorneys from my firm, across a variety of practice areas, devoted 4,088 pro bono hours to assisting more than 120 children and victims of crime and violence through these partnerships.

Through the partnership with KIND, for example, attorneys have helped children who have come to the United States without a parent or legal guardian and are unable to find or afford an attorney to represent them in immigration proceedings. Many of these children are escaping abuse or persecution, while others are victims of trafficking. KIND helps children with all types of immigration cases, including those in which the child is likely to be deported. Attorneys from my firm provide assistance with asylum, special immigrant juvenile status (for abused, abandoned, or neglected children), U or T visas (for children who are victims of criminal activity or trafficking), Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) petitions (for children who are victims of domestic violence or abuse), family-based petitions (to help children stay with their family), and other forms of protection from deportation. KIND, like the other organizations that we have teamed with, offers training sessions to volunteers and ongoing advice and support.

At my firm, some business lawyers were drawn to this service based on their personal experience of immigrating to the United States, while others were inspired by the circumstances that prompted their parents or grandparents to leave behind their country of birth to come to the United States. For these lawyers, many of whom left developing countries, their personal histories bear witness to the difficulties of living in countries where imaginary lines on a map can seem like insurmountable barriers to achieving a better life for themselves and their families. These lawyers understand that arriving in the United States often presents another barrier, when immigrants must face the difficulties of navigating the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) naturalization process.

One of my colleagues, Quan Lu, understands these barriers more than most. Quan was born in China and came to the United States with his family in 1989. His parents left China a few days after the Tiananmen Square protests, where Chinese troops violently took back the square in Beijing, massacring untold numbers of Chinese students and leaving the indelible image of an unknown man who quietly stood tall against a Chinese tank and the barrier it represented. After arriving in the United States, Quan’s family began the process of obtaining lawful permanent resident status under the Chinese Student Protection Act of 1992, which granted greens cards to certain Chinese nationals to protect them from political retribution by the government of the People’s Republic of China. When asked about this experience and why he has pursued a pro bono asylum and naturalization practice, Quan says, “I have always considered myself extremely privileged to call this country my home. I feel great pride in helping others obtain the same opportunities I have been given.”

Personally, I discovered the world outside of my business world when I first began my career as a paralegal. I was asked to assist with ushering form after form through the USCIS’ asylum and naturalization process until I met our client – a soft-spoken, hardworking Tibetan who was imprisoned and physically and psychologically terrorized because of his race, religion, nationality, and political beliefs. Immediately, I was taken. I was taken by how horrific this man’s life had been, how terrified he was for the safety of his family who remained in Tibet and, despite all he had been through, how kind and caring he could be. I was taken by how he was persecuted and oppressed simply because he was rumored to have said the wrong thing and associated with the wrong people. His real crime had been living in a place where rumors and associations can justify imprisonment and torture.

Since handling that matter, I have taken on clients seeking refugee status under the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 as a result of being physically, sexually, and mentally abused by loved ones. Some matters have concluded in denied applications, others in asylum and refuge. Most recently, a former client attained citizenship – a result delivered to me, ironically enough, through social media.

Business lawyers who delve into a pro bono asylum and naturalization practice handle a variety of matters. They may help people seek asylum and refuge or adjust their naturalization status. They may attempt to halt deportation proceedings or write petitions for the immigration and naturalization of relatives. Business lawyers at my firm have taken on clients ranging from children, who have put their lives in the hands of coyotes (individuals who accept money to smuggle children and adults into the United States illegally) to avoid being conscripted into the gangs of narco-terrorists, to adults who, like Quan’s parents, fled out of fear of retribution and persecution by governments whose fundamental purpose should have been to protect them.

Quan and two other business attorneys from my firm, Sherry Hutter and Megan Kaufmann, recently took on the case of a college-aged Afghan woman who, against the wishes of her parents and community, sought to pursue an education in Afghanistan. Undeterred by these familial and social forces, she enrolled in a program to study business and accepted a position at a micro-finance organization as a means to pay her tuition. Her association with this micro-finance organization only inflamed tensions further, as the organization had been established by a collection of Christian Americans for the purpose of making small loans to Afghan women. Within their client’s community, this organization was seen as an affront to their culture and religion because of its association with the United States and Christianity, as well as its mission to promote personal independence and business ventures among Afghan women. For her determination to receive an education, pursue business, and associate with this micro-finance organization, the Taliban made threats against her life. Her situation worsened when a cousin made an unwelcomed marriage proposal and, when denied, proceeded to beat her in front of her entire family. Her father’s subsequent death left her without a male figure to protect her in this community. Physically and mentally affected by these experiences, she immigrated to the United States to seek asylum. After learning of their client’s personal history in Afghanistan, Sherry, Megan, and Quan immediately set to obtaining her asylum. With the help of Sherry, Megan, and Quan, this young woman has obtained asylum and one day hopes to become a citizen of the United States.

Model Rule 6.1 of the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct charges each of us with the aspirational responsibility to render, without fee, at least 50 hours of pro bono services each year. Business lawyers have the privilege of practicing and living in a world where the imaginary lines separating one country from the next have been blurred, but they also have the opportunity and resources to make a meaningful difference in the lives of those where such imaginary lines perpetuate violence, oppression, and persecution. Many law firms, including my firm, support this charge by providing the resources necessary to permit their attorneys to commit at least 50 hours of pro bono services each year. Among the business lawyers that I have worked with and spoken to regarding pro bono asylum and naturalization practices, I have almost universally heard heart-wrenching stories of determination, commitment, and devotion shared between client and attorney; stories that, regardless of their outcome, end with the attorney feeling fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet and work with such amazing and inspiring clients. While cast as an aspirational responsibility in Model Rule 6.1, pro bono is a privilege, a privilege that should be embraced by business lawyers in a manner that maximizes its impact on the real world in which they live.

The oppressed urgently need business lawyers to truly become lawyers without borders by accepting pro bono asylum and naturalization cases. So the question remains, what’s preventing you from truly becoming a lawyer without borders?

Additional Resources

For other materials on this topic, please refer to the following. 

Business Law Section Program Library

Responding to the Humanitarian Crisis: Providing Pro Bono Assistance to Minors in Immigration Matters (PDF) (Audio)
Presented by: Pro Bono Committee
Location: 2015 Spring Meeting

Providing Pro Bono Assistance to Minors in Immigration Matters: The Basics (PDF) (Audio)
Presented by: Pro Bono Committee
Location: 2014 Annual Meeting               

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Business Lawyers Are in a Unique Position to Help Their Clients Identify Supply-Chain Risks Involving Labor Trafficking and Child Labor
By E. Christopher Johnson Jr.
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