Before the pandemic, law firms’ pro bono work was important. In 2019, firms contributed nearly 5 million hours. Since then, COVID-19 has created an unprecedented need and a host of legal issues—from workplace health and safety to housing evictions to early prison releases. Law firms responded to the demand for more pro bono work and faced the many challenges brought on by social distancing and remote work head-on.
Tony Williams of Jomati Consultants in London wrote an article for the International Law Association’s website in which he said, “The coronavirus pandemic will, outside of world wars, result in the largest loss of life and disruption of business experienced for hundreds of years.” His article urged lawyers to become engaged and redouble their commitment to pro bono. According to the American Bar Association, thousands of lawyers through their law firms, bar associations, legal services organizations, and government programs rallied to provide pro bono legal assistance to vulnerable, sick, low-income, disenfranchised, and unprotected people during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Law firms created virtual pro bono programs to help victims of domestic violence and unlawful evictions. They helped workers navigate access to unemployment benefits and leave to care for ill loved ones and children forced by COVID-19 to learn from home. They assisted with estate planning, debt relief, and bankruptcy. Some provided counsel to small businesses without legal representation to comply with workplace laws and health and safety orders, lease renegotiations, and government relief programs. Still others worked within the prison system, ensuring adequate testing and compassionate releases for both prisoners and detainees at immigration centers. Some used web pages to provide links to national, state, and local resources or used their own resources to locate and donate personal protective equipment to health care workers.
This roundtable will discuss the ways the pandemic challenged law firms to reinvent their pro bono programs to meet unprecedented needs.
Nicholas Gaffney (NG) is founder of Zumado Public Relations in San Francisco and a member of the Law Practice Today Editorial Board. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @nickgaffney.
|Suzanne E. Turner (ST) is a partner and the chair of Dechert’s firm-wide pro bono practice, which provides legal representation to individuals and organizations that otherwise could not afford it. Her practice involves a wide range of human rights and civil rights litigation. Throughout her career, Ms. Turner has been active in many organizations focused on access to justice and civil rights issues. Currently, Ms. Turner is co-chair of the board of PILnet and a board member of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.|
|Samir J. Abdelnour (SA) is a partner at Hanson Bridgett LLP, and also is the director of pro bono and social impact, where he aligns the firm’s pro bono and non-legal volunteer priorities, charitable giving, community service, and other social impact activities under a unified vision.|
|Katherine Hughes (KH) is Cleary Gottlieb‘s director of pro bono–U.S., where she maintains an active caseload of pro bono work focused primarily on advising nonprofit organizations, small businesses and social enterprises. In addition to serving as a finance associate at the firm, she previously held the role of general counsel to a nonprofit focused on providing risk management services to the nation’s leading network of women’s reproductive health care providers.|
|Angela Vigil (AV) is a partner and the executive director of pro bono at the law firm of Baker McKenzie where she has been honored for her work in human rights, pro bono, and children’s advocacy. She helped lead the first-ever White House Hackathon on foster care and technology, and has continued the work started there in other technology developments around the country focusing on at-risk and vulnerable children and youth.|
How did the pandemic affect your pro bono program?
Katherine Hughes (KH): It’s a challenging exercise to consider whether any facet of our pro bono program wasn’t significantly affected by the pandemic. We saw a complete transformation in the way we interact with clients, including with respect to our absolute reliance on technology and the development of patchwork solutions to an array of complications arising from the barriers to in-person contact.
We were reminded over and over that our clients—and the world—are very often not tethered to smartphones and Wi-Fi in the same way attorneys are, and that they often do not have the same access to technology that we do. We had to carefully assess each client’s needs to find the right communications solution. For some, that meant a happy reprieve from our usual in-person meetings (and not having to arrange childcare or pay for transportation); for others, that meant navigating an array of challenges, from basic logistical issues to much more complex access-to-justice and safety issues. In doing so, we were forced to redefine the very simple concept of human connection and trust—how do we build strong relationships with our clients without meeting in person?
Suzanne Turner (ST): In many ways, the pandemic felt like a perfect storm (in the pro bono context). We were faced with an enormous amount of need and, like with all of our practices, we had to figure out the best way to deliver our services remotely. We tried to be strategic and found ourselves shifting the focus of at least a part of our pro bono practice to meet the specific needs arising out of the pandemic.
For example, some of our pro bono transactional practice shifted to help struggling small businesses and nonprofits navigate applications for Paycheck Protection Act loans. Similarly, our prisoners civil rights practice shifted its focus to an emphasis on helping those at an increased risk of serious complications from COVID by filing individual claims for compassionate release, as well as a series of class actions (six cases in three states) aimed at forcing correctional institutions to comply with public health recommendations to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Samir J. Abdelnour (SA): Hanson Bridgett attorneys significantly increased their pro bono hours in 2020, as we sought out new pro bono partnerships and opportunities to help individuals meet the challenges the pandemic imposed. Those included taking on pro bono matters to help people and organizations with pandemic-related employee relocation, housing issues, PPP loan and tax issues, and remote education.
At the same time, we’ve increased our efforts to support racial justice and equity with our pro bono work, such as supporting minority-owned businesses and looking for ways to expand our pro bono civil rights work. Through this process of committing ourselves to do more for our communities and our society my role was developed.
Angela Vigil (AV): The pandemic grew Baker McKenzie’s pro bono work. People want to get involved and be part of something bigger than themselves—especially when our sense of normal has changed. The pandemic created more difficulty for everyone to do everything, yet it also made people doubly committed to find a way to serve. They wanted to feel empowered to act at a time when it felt like we didn’t have control of our lives. It was refreshing!
Did the people and organizations your program works with have an increased demand for services during the pandemic?
AV: The needs everywhere went up in expected ways, such as service organizations having so many more to serve, as well as other organizations needing help in pivoting their policy and advocacy.
SA: Certainly. The organizations we work with that provide legal services addressing clients’ economic needs saw an increased demand during the pandemic. Overall, I think the demand for pro bono legal services from our partner organizations, in general, outpaces the capacity. Part of my role is to help us direct unused capacity to meet more of those needs.
KH: Yes, absolutely. Our legal services partner organizations that were able to continue serving their clients—either fully remotely or via a hybrid approach—not only saw an increased demand for existing services, but also for services in new substantive areas and geographies. The need across populations has been nothing less than acute.
While courtroom advocacy certainly slowed down and even stopped for certain periods, the challenges our clients are facing continue to accumulate. During the pandemic, Cleary attorneys worked with an astonishing number of small businesses that struggled to patch together financial solutions to the shutdowns, with incarcerated individuals who have medical vulnerabilities and were seeking compassionate release, and with individuals dealing with the twin traumas of job loss and dramatically increased rates of domestic violence.
As an example, we helped one of our legal services partner organizations develop and launch a national training program for pro bono attorneys and their clients—in multiple languages and on multiple technology platforms – helping to grow that organization’s reach from one city to dozens of states in a matter of weeks.
ST: The simple answer is yes. Our community partners were overwhelmed with requests—everything was just amplified. For example:
- Unemployment compensation hotlines became inundated with calls
- Organizations that serve small businesses and nonprofits were overwhelmed with everything from businesses seeking to understand how to access the federal stimulus benefits to issues regarding taxes, employment law, contracts, and leases—advising businesses on how to navigate the fact that their operations were closed but they still had to pay rent.
- Organizations were overcome by requests from individuals who needed life planning documents
However, we did not just receive requests related to the economic fallout from the pandemic. We also saw increased demand in the social justice arena—especially after the death of George Floyd. Quickly following from that was an increased demand to handle voting rights cases in the 2020 election. The requests were coming from every direction.
What was the response from the firm’s lawyers to your pro bono program during the pandemic?
SA: We had a great response. Our attorneys increased their pro bono hours by almost 40% firmwide in 2020. And many of our attorneys stepped up to lead new pro bono efforts, whether aimed at addressing hardships brought on by COVID, the social justice movements happening all around, protecting the right to vote, family separation at the border, or the California wildfires.
KH: Cleary attorneys’ response to doing pro bono during the pandemic has been astonishing, resolute, and brimming with gratitude for the opportunity to help. I have reflected so many times over the past 18 months on the incredible efforts of our attorneys through the pandemic. I’ve had long conversations with many of our pro bono leaders at the firm about why they give so much back when they have so much on their plates, and I have truly marveled at attorneys who I know are balancing this work with so many other demands and often their own families’ losses.
AV: So many answered the call to do so much. Lawyers seem to be really eager to help out in new ways. Professionals in our law firm also answered the call. So many came in to try to direct their energy and anxiety to help people beyond themselves.
It is emotionally challenging to think about sometimes—in the same way post-9/11 New York is hard to think about—because, in the face of such complete devastation, the commitment of our attorneys, paralegals, and other staff to serving those in need has been unwavering and unified. They rose to the occasion immediately in a frenzy of activity and learning, and have supported each other in ways none of us ever expected we would need. For many of our attorneys, working to address the critical needs of our clients became a core part of their pandemic experience, and I am so grateful for every single hour of work that these lawyers have done in the service of others.
ST: I was really heartened to see the response of our lawyers. So many of them really rose to the occasion by providing much-needed pro bono assistance to individuals and organizations in their communities. Even though the firm was quite busy, and even though many of our attorneys had additional stressors of working from home and homeschooling young children, the firm’s pro bono hours increased by more than 15% in 2020.
There are many reasons for the increase, but the main one was that people simply wanted to help. We obviously were not first responders on the front-line saving people’s lives in the hospital, but people quickly realized that they could be helpful sitting in their kitchens and living rooms. Those doing pro bono work felt less isolated and more connected to their communities. When the news seemed all bad, they appreciated the chance to try to do a bit of good through pro bono work and channel their frustration and despair about what was going on in the world around them.
What were some challenges your pro bono program experienced during the pandemic?
SA: I think the biggest challenge was the shift to an all-virtual environment. While we had already begun the process of creating a more flexible and agile workforce at our firm prior to the pandemic, entirely losing the ability to meet in person for several months made it harder to work with clients who don’t have the access to remote work technology that we’ve come to take for granted. On top of that, for clients with urgent needs whose cases were already in the court system, court closures meant delayed relief for vulnerable individuals. What makes me so proud, however, is how much more pro bono work our attorneys took on despite these challenges.
ST: I think there were relatively few challenges. Law firms shifted to remote work relatively easily compared to other sectors. The biggest challenge for me was the lack of in-person, informal interaction. I missed being able to casually place cases by the coffee machine.
There were, in fact, a few silver linings. First, the improved video conferencing capabilities made it easier to mobilize and train large groups of attorneys. In the past, people would have felt meeting in person was necessary, but during the pandemic, the video meetings made participation easier and, on many occasions, resulted in higher participation rates than I would have otherwise expected. The enhanced communication methods also made the creation and coordination of multi-office teams much easier.
Second, the pandemic helped me keep program costs down. For example, in 2020, Dechert handled 13 voting rights cases in numerous states including Mississippi, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin. All the trials and oral arguments were remote. We avoided travel expenses and other costs, which arguably enabled us to take on more cases than we might otherwise have been able to do.
AV: Unpredictability is always a problem for everyone, but it burdens those who serve low-income communities and social justice needs even more. Our nonprofit and NGO partners have been drinking from a firehose of need that has grown and grown through these tough times. That is a challenge because, despite great interest in assisting from our people, they cannot possibly meet the avalanche of need from the housing sector, criminal justice sector, health, and mental health arena, and so much more. Systems that were already overburdened and under-resourced got more demand and it is very difficult to try to help as much as they need.
KH: In addition to the many logistical issues resulting from the pandemic, we’ve grappled with a host of challenges arising both internally and externally. So much of our program relies on building relationships—with the clients, with the attorneys, with our legal services partner organizations. In each case, we’ve had to reimagine how best to make those human connections in a remote world. In addition, in many ways, our new reliance on technology sped things up—we can just jump on an instant Zoom meeting to handle so much, but in doing so, we need to be mindful of the communities we’re serving and their comfort level and access to the same tools.
Many engagements that might have taken a few weeks have stretched into many months, given slowdowns in courts and other administrative agencies. This has brought a new layer of complexity to the attorney-client relationship, and our attorneys have really stretched to become more than just counsel on what might ordinarily be straightforward matters—they have really become allies through all the setbacks, delays, unexpected disappointments, and personal trauma.
Attorneys have been navigating this space all while dealing with their own pandemic-related concerns—the isolation and lack of community cannot be understated. We’ve really pushed to come up with new ways of connecting with them and expressing our deep gratitude for their commitment to their clients through it all.
Did you have any pro bono successes during the pandemic?
KH: Yes! We’ve had so many amazing moments—from huge successes after many months and even years of advocacy to tiny victories that have arrived in often unexpected ways. So much of our work has always been focused on racial justice efforts and criminal justice reform, and the importance of that work has only increased as we have seen the effects of the pandemic play out disproportionately across critically underserved neighborhoods.
Recently, we had a significant victory in a class-action lawsuit we filed in partnership with The Bronx Defenders that focuses on the NYPD’s improper use of sealed arrest records. We also saw a judge hand down a ruling vacating our client’s life sentence without parole for a crime of which he was convicted as a juvenile and for which he has served nearly 30 years so far. Earlier this year, a team successfully advocated for ICE to join a motion to reopen and dismiss the removal proceedings of a U.S. Navy veteran who had been deported nearly a decade ago—and shared in his joy as he reunited with his family at an airport in D.C.
We also achieved victories for clients who battled with landlords over horrendous housing conditions involving mold, water leaks, insect infestations, and worse, through so many setbacks and delays. We helped a small nonprofit in Queens, NY, launch a fund to help cover unexpected expenses for its clients—domestic violence survivors—as they lost jobs and dealt with increased domestic tension, all while living in the epicenter of New York City’s battle with COVID-19. And we served so many small businesses as they attempted to decode the many financial relief programs that sprung up and tried to understand how they fit into the fabric of American recovery. It has been quite a roller coaster; the lows have been very low, but they have brought out the very best in our practice.
ST: We had many successes both large and small. I view every will drafted, every compassionate release case filed, and every lease renegotiated as a success. That said, we did have several especially notable successes. For example, Dechert supported the Center for Reproductive Rights in its efforts to combat efforts to enact de facto abortion bans in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Oklahoma, we challenged an executive order issued by the state’s governor that mandated a moratorium on elective surgeries and minor medical procedures. Though the stated purpose was preserving PPE and hospital resources, the governor subsequently required the postponement of all abortion-related services. We represented clinics in Oklahoma that were forced to close their doors and deny care to pregnant women. We challenged the executive order as an unconstitutional ban on abortion, and courts ruled in favor of our clients at each step of the way.
We also had successes on behalf of prisoners. In Connecticut, for example, Dechert teamed up with the ACLU to bring a class-action suit on behalf of the 11,000 incarcerated people housed in 18 Connecticut Department of Correction (DOC) facilities. When we commenced the action in April 2020, less than a month after the first inmate tested positive, the DOC had the highest infection rate in the state, but had failed to institute any new policies to slow the spread. After the state unsuccessfully moved to dismiss the case, the parties entered settlement negotiations that ultimately reached an agreement. The settlement employs an independent monitoring panel of public health experts tasked with implementing best practices and prioritizing the release of medically vulnerable inmates.
SA: Yes, we’ve had many! A few examples include Hanson Bridgett’s management team partnering with Oakland legal services nonprofit Centro Legal de la Raza to help asylees apply for permanent residency in the United States; firm attorneys helping a family that had lost their employment due to COVID stay in their home despite their landlord’s efforts to evict them; and helping a charity organization obtain tax-exempt status. While we do our pro bono work to effect positive change in our communities, seeing our efforts be successful also provides tangible benefits for the attorneys who work on those matters and makes the work all the more rewarding.
AV: We focused our resources on children in need. We created a resource for children worldwide called the Youth Rights Resource Compass to help children and families know what was open to assist them. That was a product of hundreds of volunteers and another in-house legal department in service to the Center for International Human Rights at the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Pritzker School of Law at Northwestern.
On a parallel track, we worked hard to create resources to urge the release of children in detention during the pandemic. We crafted white papers, worked with people on the ground, and helped share promising practices across different fields: social workers, judicial actors, security and police forces, and others.