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May 19, 2016 Dialogue

Pro Bono: From the Chair

By Mary K. Ryan, Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service

Each year since 1984, the Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service has presented awards to individuals or organizations in the legal profession that have demonstrated an outstanding commitment to volunteer legal services for the poor and disadvantaged. The Pro Bono Publico Awards recognize individual lawyers, law firms, law schools, government attorney offices, corporate law departments, and other institutions in the legal profession who enhance human dignity through their extraordinary pro bono contributions. These efforts are of critical importance to the many people living in poverty who are in need of legal representation.

What also happens every year is that the recipients of these awards inspire us with their stories, and this year is no exception. The five recipients of this year’s ABA Pro Bono Publico Award will be honored at the Pro Bono Publico Awards Assembly Luncheon, held on August 6, 2016 during the ABA Annual Meeting. I invite you to join us for this celebration of the best of the bar, but whether you will be there or not, let me tell you more about the lawyers and firms whose commitment, energy, and unique approaches to the delivery of pro bono service we recognize this year.

Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP

New York, NY (and other U.S. and international offices)

Cleary has demonstrated its exceptional commitment to public service through a long history of pro bono work and strong leadership in the pro bono world. The firm dedicates more than 90,000 worldwide public service hours annually and in 2015, Cleary’s U.S. based attorneys logged more than 63,000 hours to pro bono matters, assisting more than 400 clients. The firm’s unusually high participation rate—with 86 percent of its attorneys providing pro bono— demonstrates a firm-wide spirit of commitment to the public good. These attorneys provided valuable assistance in a broad range of practice areas, including defending the rights of the homeless, representing individuals seeking asylum, post-conviction advocacy for trafficking survivors, fighting for better access to public facilities for people with disabilities, and successful representation of a Tennessee death row inmate involving more than twenty Cleary lawyers over seventeen years, to name just a few.

The list of the firm’s successful public service community partnerships, projects, and litigation experiences is too long to include here, but suffice it to say that their public service efforts are recognized and appreciated throughout the legal services profession. In addition, Cleary has been recognized for its outstanding pro bono efforts by a number of public interest organizations, bar associations, and law schools.  Law360 has named Cleary “Pro Bono Firm of the Year” three times, including 2015 when it was named a Pro Bono Star firm. In 2016, Cleary was named to the Pro Bono Hotlist by The National Law Journal.

John Goss

Goss and Fentress, Norfolk, VA

John Goss exemplifies how the extraordinary efforts of one person can make a significant difference in the lives of many. In 2015, approximately 1,500 people in Kentucky were notified that their Social Security Disability and/or Supplemental Security Income benefits were being reviewed and their eligibility questioned—not because of any wrongdoing on the part of the recipients, but because of possible fraud involving their former private attorney, doctors, and an administrative law judge. For many of the recipients, these benefits were their only source of income, the loss of which would be catastrophic. Repayment of benefits paid to date—part of the relief sought by the government in some cases—would have equally devastating results.

Due to funding cuts, legal assistance from the legal aid organization serving that area—the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund of Kentucky, Inc. (“AppalReD)—was not sufficient to handle these particular needs. Therefore, engaging pro bono attorneys throughout the state with the assistance of the Kentucky Bar Association was a necessary part of the response. But even that was not enough. AppalReD, working with the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives, put out a nationwide call for volunteers. John Goss responded to this call for help all the way from his office in Norfolk, Virginia, over 500 miles away. Using video conferencing to interview clients and prepare them for hearings, and by driving great distances, he represented over 50 clients in these complex administrative cases. While everyone who responded to this crisis is to be commended, John’s remarkable efforts alone amounted to approximately 10% of the total cases handled by the pro bono attorneys.

Beyond the mark that he has left on his client’s lives, Goss helped clarify the Social Security Administration’s process for arranging and conducting three-way video hearings, allowing attorneys to handle hearings remotely. This clarification has and will undoubtedly continue to lead to an increase in the potential pool of volunteer attorneys.

Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP

Chicago, IL (and other U.S. and international offices)

Katten’s commitment to pro bono can be seen not only in the significant hours of pro bono services provided every year, but in its innovative partnerships with community organizations.  In Washington, D.C., Katten attorneys assist with a walk-in legal clinic run by the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program’s Advice and Referral Clinic at Bread for the City’s Northwest Center, a local nonprofit community service organization. In North Carolina, the firm formed a partnership with Safe Child Immigrant Project of Legal Services of the Southern Piedmont, where a number of child immigrants from Central America have been assisted.

One of Katten’s more creative legal clinics allows attorneys to provide services in an unusual setting. Through a partnership with Legal Assistance Foundation, Katten helped to establish one of the first clinics in the country to provide free legal services in a public school. In its first year, this clinic served more than 60 individuals with a spectrum of legal issues, including landlord-tenant disputes, housing matters, consumer issues, expungements, and family law. By delivering these services directly to the communities where there is the greatest need, this clinic has significantly increased access to justice. And this progressive idea is certainly not the first one exhibited by this firm:  Katten was one of the first law firms to create a specific partner position to focus on pro bono work.

Renee Schoenberg

DLA Piper, Chicago IL

For over 35 years, transactional attorney Renee Schoenberg has provided legal services for hundreds of nonprofit organizations. Although many automatically think of direct services to clients when they think of pro bono services, legal support to the organizations that create the infrastructure for those direct services is an important part of the picture. Last year, for example, Schoenberg helped create and obtain recognition of tax-exempt status for the DC Affordable Law Firm, a nonprofit dedicated to providing legal help for those who are poor, but who fall just outside the reach of traditional legal aid programs. By helping to establish nonprofit status or remove other legal barriers, Renee is likely to have had a vast impact on the countless individuals who are the beneficiaries of these organizations.

In addition to providing more than 900 pro bono hours last year, she also acts as a pro bono champion and a mentor for her law firm colleagues. She is referred to as an “unsung heroine” who has garnered the respect and admiration of her colleagues, mentees, and clients.

Hillary Gaston Walsh

The Law Office of Hillary Gaston Walsh, South Korea

Hillary Gaston Walsh is a resourceful and dedicated human rights attorney who commits significant time to representing pro bono clients in the United States, working remotely from her home at Osan Air Base in South Korea. Her human rights commitment began in Uganda, where she volunteered at an orphanage. As a law student, she worked in the school’s Immigration Clinic, where she represented victims of human trafficking and handled a complex asylum/torture case involving an individual from Haiti. Her career trajectory since graduating in 2012 continues to include life-saving pro bono assistance to underserved communities.

Moving from location to location with her family due to her husband’s position in the Air Force, she is now located in South Korea. Even in this context, she has found a way to do pro bono immigration appeals remotely. From South Korea, she has written appellate briefs for multiple cases before the Board of Immigration Appeals and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

On behalf of the many clients served by these individuals and organizations, we extend our gratitude.