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The Pro Bono Wire September/October 2017

Escaping Quicksand: The Story of Kirkland & Ellis’ Pro Bono Client Charles Johnson

In 1995, Charles Johnson was wrongfully convicted, along with three other men, of a double murder at a used-car dealership in Chicago. Despite the absence of any physical or forensic evidence linking him to the crime, he served 20 years of a mandatory life sentence. When Kirkland & Ellis*† and lawyers from Project Innocence took his case he had already spent over 10 years in prison.

Johnson shared his challenging journey with 400 guests at the 2017 PBI Annual Dinner in September. Here is what he had to say:

“I would like each of you to take a moment and think about all the things that have happened in your life over the past 20 years. Some of you graduated from college. Some of you graduated from law school. Some of you were engaged and got married.”

Charles Johnson, with Kirkland and Ellis’ Justin Barker, receives a standing ovation at the PBI Annual Dinner in September.

“Some of you had your first child and perhaps more children. Some of you watched your oldest child learn to drive.

“Some of you watched your children graduate from high school or even college. Some of you joined a law firm as an associate and even became a partner. There is no question that for everyone in this room so many important events have occurred over the past 20 years.

“Let me tell you what occurred over the last 20 plus years of my life. I sat in prison day after day for a crime that I did not commit. As I sat in a prison cell, day after day, week after week, month after month and year after year . . . I was slowly losing hope.

“The easiest way I can describe it to someone who can’t fathom being incarcerated, not only for life, but innocently for life, is that it’s like standing in quicksand.

“As you stand there, you can see the world around you. In the beginning, so many people want to reach out their hand to try and pull you out. But they soon realize their efforts are fruitless, so they begin to watch from afar or walk away all together, not able to watch you slowly sink and die.

“All the while, I stand in terror, knowing I’m going to die–the question just becomes ‘when?’

“So the quicksand begins to reach my chest, and I start to run out of breath. I have lost all hope for survival… until my hope arrived. I hear voices—strangers—saying, ‘Don’t panic. We are here to help you, together, we will get you out.’

“I don’t know how to respond, as everyone before them gave up.

“After all the heartache and pain I suffered at the hands of the system I found myself questioning them–are you really real?–while trying to regain my trust in humanity.

“They quickly replied ‘We are not here to gain notoriety. We are not here for applause. We are here simply because we want to help you. Our purpose is to help set you free.’

“I had been in prison for more than 10 years when I learned that lawyers for Project Innocence at Northwestern Law School and from Kirkland & Ellis had agreed to take my case. They believed in me when others wouldn’t give me the time of day. They fought for me for more than nine years and they proved to the world that I am an innocent man.

“Without Justin Barker and Tim Knapp from Kirkland & Ellis and the lawyers from Project Innocence, without their support and their resources, without their knowledge and understanding, I would have been left to die in prison.

“They changed my life and my families’ lives forever.  We will always remain close with them and consider them part of our family.

“In closing: The only way I am able to stand here in front of you today is because of pro bono work. I will be forever grateful for my lawyers who sacrifice so much to advocate for human rights.  They gave me my life back.”

In 2008, two professors who were then at the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law (CWC) asked Kirkland & Ellis to represent Johnson, selecting his case from the thousands of letters they receive from inmates annually.

After years of investigation and motion practice seeking additional fingerprint testing, the legal team uncovered numerous new matches from fingerprints left at the scene of the crime to previously unidentified convicted felons with no connection to Johnson. One of these individuals left multiple prints at the crime scene as well as on a marketing sticker the perpetrators ripped from a car they stole to flee the scene. The cars were driven five miles from the crime scene and hidden in an alley less than one block away from where the newly-discovered suspect lived.

Johnson’s team also tracked down previously missing witnesses, who revealed a motive that was far more consistent with the details of the crime than the motive the state had presented at trial.

Based on this new evidence, Kirkland and CWC filed two post-conviction petitions on behalf of Johnson, including an innocence petition in 2010. In 2013, the First District Appellate Court held that Johnson had “made a substantial showing of an actual innocence claim” based on the new fingerprint testing and ordered an evidentiary hearing. In July 2016, the Illinois Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office agreed to a new trial for Johnson and his co-defendants and vacated his conviction. Johnson was released from prison on September 26, 2016.

In February 2017, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office dismissed all charges against the four men.  The “Marquette Park 4” entered prison as teenagers and spent a collective 70 years behind bars.

Kirkland & Ellis devoted eight-and-a-half years to securing Johnson’s exoneration and freedom.

Kirkland & Ellis was honored with the John H. Pickering Award at the 2017 PBI Annual Dinner for the firm’s significant commitment to pro bono. We were grateful to Johnson for sharing his experiences and are inspired by the powerful impact pro bono had on his life. Watch Charles Johnson at the 2017 PBI Annual Dinner

* denotes a Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge® signatory
† denotes a Law Firm Pro Bono Project® member

 Inside the Landlord-Tenant Project

A Q&A with the in-house teams of Alcoa Corporation and Arconic Inc.

To recognize the unique role partnerships among in-house legal departments, law firms, and public interest groups play in the provision of pro bono legal services, Corporate Pro Bono (CPBO), the global partnership project of PBI and the Association of Corporate Counsel, created the CPBO Pro Bono Partner Award (with two categories: Small Law and Large Law), which is presented each year at the PBI Annual Dinner.

This year’s CPBO Pro Bono Partner Award: Small Law went to Alcoa Corporation and Arconic Inc. in partnership with Meyer, Unkovic & Scott. Together they provide low-income Pittsburgh-area residents with a voice in their own security and access to fair legal counsel. In the following Q&A, in-house leaders at Alcoa and Arconic share their insights about the project with readers.

Marcus Brown of Entergy presents the CPBO Partner Award to Max Laun of Arconic at the 2017 PBI Annual Dinner.

What is the Landlord-Tenant Project, why was it created, and whom does it serve?

The Landlord-Tenant Project provides legal representation to low-income tenants involved in disputes with their landlords.  Alcoa and Arconic attorneys volunteer to work on housing choice voucher denials, public housing issues, and operate a telephone hotline to answer questions about tenants’ rights.  It was initiated in September 2015 by the Pittsburgh Pro Bono Partnership (PPBP), which brings together corporate legal departments and lawyers in private practice to collaborate to provide pro bono legal services.

How did Alcoa Inc. become involved?

Alcoa Inc. was a member of the PPBP since its inception nearly 15 years ago, and we learned that it was looking for a corporate partner to help staff the project.  When Alcoa Inc. split into Arconic Inc. and Alcoa Corporation in November 2016, both companies were pleased to continue this tradition.

What was the impact of the transition to Alcoa Corporation and Arconic Inc.?

Very little. The separation into two companies also meant separating the Legal Departments!  However, the leadership of both new Legal Departments recommitted to the Project, and recruited new participants from both companies to assist in the Landlord-Tenant Project.

How does the partnership between the two legal departments and Meyer, Unkovic & Scott work?

Each week, one Arconic or Alcoa Corporation lawyer, along with one Meyer, Unkovic and Scott lawyer, is assigned to staff the hotline.  Most of the inquiries can be addressed over the phone, or by sending forms to the tenant callers.  More complex matters may require either consultation among the volunteer lawyers, or appearance at a magisterial district hearing.  In those cases, the in-house lawyer and the Meyer Unkovic lawyer collaborate to give accurate answers and/or appear in court. Our overall goal is to ensure that low-income, Pittsburgh-area residents have a voice in their own security and access to fair legal counsel.

What kind of training and support do volunteers receive?

Each volunteer lawyer receives a two-three hour training session (with Pennsylvania CLE credit) on the basics of landlord-tenant law, provided by expert attorneys from Neighborhood Legal Services Association (NLSA), the Western Pennsylvania legal aid service provider. The training focuses on the most common cases we will encounter – evictions, failure to pay rent (whether for economic or inhabitability reasons), and the basics of public housing law. Most importantly, the NLSA trainers and the Meyer Unkovic lawyers are “on call” to help the in-house lawyers if we have questions, whether on the basics or on more complex matters.

How have the companies, legal departments, and volunteers benefited from this effort? 

Doing pro bono work makes us better human beings as well as better lawyers.  It strengthens the communities where we live and work and it helps our friends and neighbors here in the Pittsburgh area. In addition to the knowledge that we are doing good by helping someone who would not otherwise have legal representation in what can be an unfriendly system, we enhance our understanding of the issues confronting the less fortunate in our communities and are given the opportunity to enhance our legal learning and our client communication skills. Our teams love the experience.

What challenges did the department confront in building this partnership project?

Convincing our lawyers that they can learn enough landlord-tenant law in a two-three hour CLE to be useful and effective. Given that 95 percent of tenants in these cases are unrepresented and trying to work through a system designed and built by lawyers (with the assumption that lawyers will be navigating it), being helpful is a low bar. But none of us likes to feel incompetent answering questions, so the upfront training and ability to call lawyers, who practice in this area every day, is key.

What has been your favorite aspect?  Do you have a personal experience you can share?

The feeling of helping people navigate their way through a complex system, and stay in the places they call home – or move on to a better one – is enormously rewarding.  The victories can be hard fought, but they aren’t always: one of our younger attorneys made a difference just by showing up to a hearing. The landlord had taken a very hard line on providing any information to the tenant (or her attorney), but when our lawyer actually showed up at the magisterial hearing, the landlord and his lawyer realized that they weren’t simply going to be able to bully the tenant into agreement. A payment plan and an agreement to repair some fundamental problems with the apartment were worked out at the hearing; they would not have been had the tenant appeared unrepresented. The best part of this story isn’t the victory – though all lawyers love winning a case – but rather the feeling that we made a real difference in the lives of a family in our own community.

For in-house counsel interested in replicating the Landlord-Tenant Project, what are some lessons learned?  What do you wish you knew when you started?

For those of us who spend our time on corporate matters, we forget that to many people the law is a living, breathing thing – something that affects their lives and the way they live their lives, not just their work. And we forget that our legal training equips us to help people in small ways that can make a huge difference. For many, doing this work reminds people why they joined the legal profession in the first place.  And so, for all these reasons, it’s very rewarding – as with any pro bono effort, you feel good when you’ve completed a case, made a contribution, made a difference – and maybe learned something in the process.

In terms of things we wished we’d known: don’t be afraid of the subject matter – you can pick up enough of it in a short while to be effective . . .especially considering that the tenant’s alternative is to slog through the system unrepresented.  In our Project, the help chain is very real and the legal services and law firm lawyers give unsparingly of their time and expertise to help their in-house colleagues become effective advocates for our tenants.

PBI would like to thank the legal departments of Alcoa Corporation and Arconic Inc. for sharing their experience of the partnership with our readers.

Clearing a Path for Veterans

A Q&A with Connecticut Veterans Legal Center staff

To recognize the unique role partnerships among in-house legal departments, law firms, and public interest groups play in the provision of pro bono legal services, Corporate Pro Bono (CPBO), the global partnership project of PBI and the Association of Corporate Counsel, created the CPBO Pro Bono Partner Award (with two categories: Small Law and Large Law), which is presented each year at the PBI Annual Dinner.

UnitedHealth Group And Connecticut Veterans Legal Center representatives with their CPBO Partner Award at the 2017 PBI Annual Dinner

This year, CPBO recognized UnitedHealth Group Incorporated (UHG)** with Connecticut Veterans Legal Center (CVLC) with the CPBO Pro Bono Partner Award: Large Law for their partnership project “Review-A-Rama,” which assists eligible veterans pursuing disability compensation. In the following Q&A, CVLC staff share insights gleaned from the joint project.

You can hear more about the project from Executive Vice President and Chief Legal Officer at UnitedHealth Group, Marianne Short, on the CLO & Pro Bono podcast series.

CVLC’s mission is to provide free legal assistance to veterans in recovery from homelessness, mental illness, and substance abuse to help them overcome legal barriers to housing, healthcare, and income. CVLC meets these veterans where they already receive various types of mental health care, substance abuse treatment, housing and other social services. CVLC’s Removing Legal Barriers program helps veterans who are confronting a wide variety of legal issues including family, housing, criminal record expungement, bankruptcy, consumer debt, Social Security and VA benefits, employment, estate planning, and military discharge upgrades.

How did the Review-A-Rama project come about? What need does it meet?

In designing Review-a-Rama (RAR), CVLC and UHG sought to alleviate a bottleneck in CVLC’s workflow while also providing short-term pro bono opportunities for employees in UHG’s legal department, including paralegal and administrative staff.

How did the partnership with UHG come to be? How is it maintained today?

UHG Attorney Eric Greenberg brought CVLC’s Executive Director Margaret Middleton to UHG’s office in the hopes of developing opportunities for his colleagues. Eric had volunteered with CVLC before joining UHG. The third round of the Review-a-Rama partnership wrapped up in the fall of 2016, and CVLC and UHG hope to complete another round in the future. In the meantime, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison* adopted the model and is actively developing Review-a-Rama-inspired projects with several nonprofit partners.

Who is the “typical client” served by this project?

The typical client served is a disabled veteran whose disability was caused or exacerbated by military service. Because of that disability, the veteran may face significant financial challenges and may have experienced homelessness. A RAR military and medical record file review helps CVLC attorneys build a case for veterans to receive the life-changing disability compensation they deserve.

What challenges did the department confront in building this partnership project?

UHG was able to overcome the challenges of engaging their staff by allowing them to choose their level of commitment. They were also able to choose in advance which month they wanted to contribute to the project, allowing for them to do the project at the most convenient time for them personally.

What has been your favorite aspect of the collaboration? 

Review-a-Rama works because it strikes the right note between providing an important service to CVLC’s clients (unbundled document review) and harnessing the energy, skills, and generosity of a large group of UHG staff.

We like to share lessons learned — what insights came about through creating Review-A-Rama?

CVLC and UHG learned that pro bono volunteers are truly eager for the opportunity to engage with a meaningful project. When given a concrete task that has true value, volunteers will give the project their all and even be willing to go back and donate more of their time when asked. For example, many RAR volunteers, after completing their file review in one month, asked to be given another file for the next month. They saw how their work was contributing to the veterans’ cases and wanted to continue to contribute.

What advice would you have for legal departments wanting to partner with legal services organizations like CVLC?

Keep the lines of communication open and be willing to review and enhance the process as you go along. A time-limited project that can be repeated allows for improvements with each round.

PBI would like to thank CVLC staff for sharing their insights about the partnership with our readers.

* denotes a Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge® signatory
** denotes a Corporate Pro Bono Challenge® signatory
denotes a Law Firm Pro Bono Project® member