The ABA Pro Bono Publico Award is presented each year by the Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service to honor individual lawyers, law firms, law schools, government attorney offices, corporate law departments and other institutions in the legal profession that have enhanced the human dignity of others by improving or delivering volunteer legal services to the poor.
On August 4th, 2018, the 5 recipients of the ABA Pro Bono Publico Award were honored at the Pro Bono Publico Awards Assembly Luncheon held during the ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago.
Patrick Arenz – Robins Kaplan LLP – Minneapolis, MN
Serving as a trial lawyer is a calling. A vocation that demands passion and commitment. I feel privileged to be a trial lawyer, and to have tried all sorts of cases in my career, including multi-million dollar verdicts against powerful companies. But among my many trials, I am most proud of several pro bono cases. As a first year lawyer, a young Ethiopian woman who faced persecution for her political views on women’s rights and free speech was granted asylum. A young man with the cards stacked against him needed vigorous representation against felony charges. And several years ago, a verdict in an international custody dispute under the Hague Convention allowed a young girl to continue living in the United States with her mother. The clients in each case all had the same question: can you help me with the most important problem in my life? I was honored then that they each entrusted me with their problem. And I am honored today to receive the ABA Pro Bono Publico award as recognition for this pro bono work.
The background for my pro bono work started 80 years ago. In 1938, two lawyers started a firm of their own because antisemitism denied them employment at established firms. From that day on, Robins Kaplan LLP has worked tirelessly to ensure equal access to justice for all. That mission motivated me to join the firm out of law school in 2006. Through my experience as Chair of the firm’s Pro Bono Committee, I have witnessed that mission in action. My colleagues have rewritten the odds for so many people who had no one else to turn to. I have seen some of our most significant wins, and shared in some of our toughest losses. Above all, my colleagues, from junior associates to senior partners, have answered the call—time and again—when someone needed a trial lawyer but could not afford one. I am so proud to be part of this firm.
My work for Panyia Vang remains the highlight of my career. Panyia brought her case in federal court against her abuser—a U.S. citizen who sexually assaulted her in Laos when she was 14 and he was 43 years old. She carried the trauma from that assault with her for years. Panyia pursued her case for years with unrelenting courage—confronting not only her abuser, but also the unsupportive community she lived in.
She testified with resolve for hours. Listening to her testimony, it was clear that emotion knows no language. Anyone who heard her testimony, even without translation from Hmong to English, could feel the powerful impact it had. The jury certainly did. Verdict means to speak the truth. And the jury’s $950,000 verdict spoke on behalf of the community that what the defendant did to Panyia was wrong and will not be tolerated.
This verdict sends a broader message too. “Sex tourism,” referred to as international travel for illicit sex, is an unconscionable crime. And it occurs more often than any of us can imagine. The U.S. State Department reports that sex tourism is a $1 billion a year industry. Panyia and I hope this verdict makes the next perpetrator think twice before getting on a plane to head overseas—and if not, that he knows he may be held accountable by a jury in federal court.
There is not enough space to express my gratitude for those who helped me develop my career as a trial lawyer. In retrospect, however, any achievements I have obtained all stem from my Mom and Dad—the opportunities they provided and the values they instilled in me, including the importance of treating everyone with dignity and respect. Today, no one sacrifices more for me and our children than my wife, Christine, who celebrates the good days and shoulders the bad ones, but no matter what, is always by my side. I am also grateful for the mentorship that Marty Lueck and Ron Schutz have provided throughout my career. They trained me as a trial lawyer, and I have used the skills they helped me develop in every one of my pro bono cases.
Few professions offer the ability to change people’s lives forever. Being a trial lawyer is one that does. And pro bono work offers the ability to do that for those who have no other hope—the poor, the disadvantaged, those who live in the shadows of life. My past pro bono work (and this award) will always serve as a reminder to me, as I hope it does for others and especially my children when they grow older, that when someone in need asks if we can help them, that the answer is an easy one.
Deborah Coleman – Coleman Law LLC – Cleveland, OH
As I looked toward retiring from the business law firm where I was a partner, I knew that I wanted to do more pro bono work. I had gone to law school planning to use my law license to “change the world” in some way but detoured into a long and satisfying career litigating complex commercial cases. I knew, too, that there were likely many other lawyers who would be winding down their litigation or transactional practices, and still have the energy and desire to do more. Conflicts had prevented lawyers in business law firms in Northeast Ohio from answering the call to help low-income members of the community navigate the fallout of the recession, which hit people in our area particularly hard.
These thoughts led to conversations with the leadership of the bar and The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, and ultimately to the creation of Legal Aid’s ACT 2 program. The ACT 2 program enlists late career and retired lawyers in meeting the legal needs of the community. The ACT 2 corps numbers over 100 lawyers and is growing as my fellow “baby boomers” retire from the law firm, government, and corporate positions. Lawyers staff brief advice clinics in public libraries or community centers. Some accept matters for clients that require sustained attention and extended representation. Others help Legal Aid increase its capacity by working as in-house volunteers or training Legal Aid staff in needed skills or areas of practice.
ACT 2 lawyers can count on Legal Aid’s malpractice insurance and on Legal Aid’s staff for guidance on unfamiliar issues. Some attorneys focus on areas they know well, like employment, bankruptcy or estate planning; others venture into new areas where client needs arise. Many lawyers find that subject matter expertise is less important to helping their low-income clients than the fundamental skills that all lawyers have—listening well, helping a client understand her situation, generating and weighing options, and creating and carrying out an action plan.
I have been doing something to help people of limited means since law school. I spent a summer at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society after the first year. During my second and third years, I helped defendants facing low-level criminal charges in the district courts of Massachusetts as one of the Harvard Voluntary Defenders. As a young lawyer, I served as a guardian ad litem for abused, neglected or dependent children, and as defense counsel for juveniles accused of delinquency. During the last 15 or 20 years of my law firm practice, I accepted a case now and then from Legal Aid. Now as a sole practitioner, I usually have 2-4 extended representation pro bono clients at any given time. I participate in brief advice clinics often and serve as the Chair of the ACT 2 Advisory Committee to recruit new volunteers and provide insight on project development. I have also shared my knowledge of legal ethics with Legal Aid lawyers and public defenders.
A lawyer’s help can make a big difference. A young woman came to a quick advice clinic complaining about conditions in the apartment where she lived. Security was so bad, she said, that their mail was often stolen, including a check intended as a contribution to her education. She thought it was just another loss in a life of losses. But because the bank had honored a forged signature, I was able to recover the value of the check from the bank for her. A young man inherited a modest house from his grandmother. While he was a minor, his father mortgaged the house, drank the proceeds and disappeared. We settled with the lender and recovered clean title for the young man. Although I don’t get a dramatically favorable result in every case I handle, I make sure that every client feels heard and supported, and experiences someone within the “system” advocating and working for him.
Given the modest scale of my contributions, I was completely surprised to learn that I would receive one of the ABA Pro Bono Publico Awards. Surely there are hundreds of lawyers around the country more deserving of recognition for their work to meet the legal needs of low income people. It is a tremendous honor to be included among the distinguished lawyers and law firms that have received this award. I salute them, as well as my local colleagues at bar who have or who will join the ACT 2 corps. Thanks to Ann Porath and The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland for nominating me. Under the leadership of Colleen Cotter, the lawyers and staff of Legal Aid work tirelessly to make a difference in the lives of people who have nowhere else to turn.
For more information, please contact Deborah or go to www.dacolemanlaw.com.
Ballard Spahr LLP – Philadelphia, PA
Ballard Spahr is profoundly honored to receive the American Bar Association’s Pro Bono Publico Award. As we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the firm’s pro bono program, our commitment to providing free legal services to those in need remains more steadfast than ever. Over the past three decades, our lawyers have contributed more than half a million hours of pro bono work to individuals, organizations, and causes far too numerous to list. While celebrating those accomplishments, we are looking ahead to new opportunities and challenges.
The past year has been particularly rewarding. We helped clients ranging from individual asylum seekers to seekers of post-conviction relief to internationally renowned elite athletes fighting for gender parity. When the Trump administration unexpectedly issued a travel ban, our lawyers took shifts at airports around the country to help non-U.S. citizens navigate the process. Ballard Spahr attorneys were featured in a documentary film—honored at the Sundance Film Festival—about a woman we represented through Clemency Project 2014. And our pro bono efforts received international news coverage when we helped the U.S. Women’s National Hockey Team secure an equitable labor contract.
We are committed to serving the most vulnerable in our community, including immigrants and asylum seekers. Over the years, we have counseled the Lost Boys of Sudan and victims of human trafficking, and we assisted immigrants affected by the travel ban. Last year, our lawyers teamed with the organization Appleseed to draft a manual to help undocumented immigrants protect their families and assets in the event of deportation. Ballard Spahr lawyers also trained Mexican consular officials in U.S. family law so they could better advise panicked Mexican nationals reaching out for help as deportation efforts increased. And, with the administration’s zero-tolerance policy of separating families at U.S. borders, our lawyers have mobilized to represent detainees at bond hearings and to reunite these families.
More than 100 Ballard Spahr attorneys represented clients pro bono through Clemency Project 2014, assisting inmates serving disproportionately harsh prison terms for non-violent offenses under then-mandatory sentencing laws. The firm filed petitions for 81 clients with the Office of the Pardon Attorney; 29 of which were granted by President Obama.
Cindy Shank is one of the prisoners we helped. Sentenced to 15 years for a first-time, nonviolent, drug offense tied to an abusive ex-boyfriend, Cindy left behind three young daughters when she went to federal prison. Her brother, filmmaker Rudy Valdez, documented the story of Cindy's incarceration, the effects it had on her children, and her family's efforts to lobby for sentencing reform. What started as a personal project became The Sentence, a full-length documentary. The film won the Audience Award for a U.S. Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival this year and landed a deal with HBO for U.S. television and streaming rights.
Ballard Spahr has a longstanding commitment to advancing gender equality. A number of professional female athletes have relied on the firm's pro bono counsel in their fight for equitable pay. For nearly two decades, the firm represented the Olympic gold medal-winning players of the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team, who, in 1998, sought our assistance on questions involving their contract with the U.S. Soccer Federation.
The firm continues to work pro bono on behalf of high-profile women athletes with its representation of the players of the U.S. Women’s National Hockey Team. The team, which had won seven world titles leading up to the 2017 World Championships, captured international attention when the players announced that they would protest more than a year of stalled contract negotiations by skipping the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships rather than defend their gold medals. Facing the boycott, USA Hockey resumed negotiations. The players and the firm made history when they negotiated a labor contract with the team's national governing body that provides fair pay and equitable support for women’s and girls’ programs nationwide. The parties agreed on the contract just in time for the team to play in the World Championships—where they beat archrival Canada to win gold. They later went on to win gold at the 2018 Olympics as well.
As we commence our pro bono program's fourth decade, the program has been made stronger than ever by the firm's recent mergers. In January 2018, Ballard Spahr merged with Lindquist & Vennum, a firm with an accomplished pro bono program of its own, touting 100 percent lawyer participation and robust clinical programs. In October 2017, we merged with Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, a media law boutique and longtime contributor of cutting-edge pro bono work in the important area of First Amendment rights. Together, the firms' attorneys contributed more than 50,000 hours of pro bono service in 2017—and we look forward to combined efforts in the years to come.
Cooley LLP – Palo Alto, CA
Cooley devotes more than one-third of its pro bono practice to immigration-related pro bono work, including impact litigation to protect the due process rights of immigrants, amicus briefs on immigration-related cases, and individual applications for humanitarian immigration relief. In 2017, they represented more than 100 clients on petitions for asylum, petitions for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) for children who have been abused or abandoned by a parent, and applications for immigration relief for survivors of domestic abuse. Cooley filed amicus briefs on behalf of immigration legal services providers in challenges to the rescission of DACA, and in sanctuary city litigation on behalf of health and human services nonprofits in danger of losing federal funding.
That same year Cooley contributed almost 53,000 hours of pro bono legal services. In addition to the work they do year in and year out representing individuals and nonprofit organizations, their attorneys negotiate large settlements in several civil rights and discrimination cases, filed new high-profile impact litigation cases, and responded to current events and environmental crises. They partner with more than 75 legal services organizations in these endeavors.
Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP – New York, NY
Simpson Thacher has an abiding commitment to public service that dates back for decades. Their attorneys believe in using their skills and passions to serve low-income communities, fight against injustice, preserve access to the courts, and enforce the rule of law. Most the firm’s attorneys across the world participate in pro bono work, devoting tens of thousands of hours to pro bono projects each year. That work includes advocating on behalf of low-income clients and the nonprofits that serve them, representing individual clients in matters involving immigration proceedings, contract drafting, nonprofit formation, unemployment and benefits hearings, housing and family court cases, and special education meetings, just to name a few. In addition, Simpson Thacher attorneys consult with hundreds of additional individuals each year at legal clinics, where volunteer attorneys advise artists, entrepreneurs, immigrants, victims of human trafficking, homeless youth, students and their families about the legal issues that concern and profoundly affect their lives. The significance and breadth of these matters demonstrates the far-ranging areas in which attorneys at Simpson Thacher have made a difference, secured rights under the legal framework that binds us, and protected the rule of law.