Guest Blog: DLA Piper Associates Work in Guyana

The PBEye recently heard from a team of junior associates at DLA Piper* about their experiences doing pro bono in Guyana.  Pro bono is a terrific way for associates and seasoned attorneys alike to gain skills and develop professionally.  Here’s what our friends at DLA Piper, J. Hess, Nicole C. King, and Terry Smith, had to say:

Attorneys involved with pro bono often share two common perspectives: a belief that we have an ethical obligation to provide pro bono services, and an understanding that pro bono offers unique opportunities to build valuable skills and broaden overall legal acumen.  Junior associates, particularly those working in larger law firms, might find that pro bono work can bring more responsibility and greater exposure than their regular billable work.

In our case, such an opportunity came through an international pro bono project in Guyana, South America. Over the last few years, Guyana has made a strong commitment to strengthening its justice sector under a program called Modernization of the Justice Administration System (MJAS).  Both the Judiciary and the Department of Public Prosecution (DPP) have spent considerable time and resources upgrading facilities and personnel.  DLA Piper’s nonprofit affiliate, New Perimeter, recognized Guyana’s strong commitment to fortifying its legal sector and offered the pro bono services of DLA Piper attorneys with expertise directly related to MJAS goals.

To prepare for the project, DLA Piper attorneys made two due diligence trips to Guyana.  During these trips, these attorneys observed court proceedings and interviewed judges, magistrate judges, prosecutors, police prosecutors, and senior investigators.  It became clear that magistrate courts were strapped for resources and severely backlogged.  An attorney or judge from the United States or the U.K. cannot help but immediately fixate on seemingly basic, but temporarily insurmountable obstacles.  Hearings move excruciatingly slowly, because there are no court stenographers and magistrate judges must hand-write testimony.  It is nearly impossible to hear testimony from meek witnesses or arguments from soft-spoken attorneys, because sounds from the street blare through courtroom windows which are necessarily open to provide some relief to the tropical heat.  Witnesses fail to show for hearings, because they live hours away by boat and either did not receive notice or have no means to travel to court.

Despite these obstacles, it was an important moment in the development of this project when we realized that technology—stenographers, air conditioned court rooms, and faster boats—was not a realistic goal.  Once we recognized that the Guyanese Judicial System was not going to become resource-rich over night, we instead sought practical solutions that would organically increase efficiency and capacity.  While momentarily counterintuitive, we realized that the most effective way to support Guyana’s modernization efforts was not to address its weakest aspects, but rather to support its greatest resource, the people already working hard every day to support the rule of law.

The prosecutor's training team (from left to right): DLA Piper lawyers Mark Nadeau (Phoenix), Nicole King (Los Angeles), Mitka Baker (Washington, DC), Rob Sherman (Boston), Carolyn McNiven (San Francisco), Terry Smith (Philadelphia), Peter Zeidenberg (Washington, DC).

It was in this spirit that we developed a two-part project that included drafting “best practices” manuals and implementing simulation-based training workshops for Guyanese magistrate judges and prosecutors.  To implement the project, we spent five days in Guyana with 10 other DLA Piper attorneys from offices across the United States and Europe.  For magistrates, the workshops focused on advanced trial-management skills, new anti-money laundering and asset forfeiture laws, and international best practices in bail setting.  In a separate workshop for more than 40 prosecutors, police prosecutors, and senior investigators, we focused on improving trial advocacy skills like cross-examining witnesses, introducing documents and physical evidence, and establishing chain of custody.

Guyana’s commitment to the program was reaffirmed when courts were closed for Friday’s workshops and magistrates and prosecutors gave up their Saturday to attend training sessions. Highly interactive, energetic, and collegial, the workshops allowed legal professionals working in a heavily burdened system time to step back and reflect on their craft.  Discussions carried over through lunch breaks and into the evenings, and it became clear that curiosity and a love for debate are universal traits for legal professionals.

As junior associates, this project offered a number of unique opportunities.  Foremost, we had an opportunity to play an active role in the project’s design and development. We were actively involved in meetings with the Chancellor of the Judiciary, High Court Judges, the Director and Assistant Director of Public Prosecution, as well as other judicial officials.  While normally junior associates spend time sifting through discovery or performing due diligence from their desks, we were in Guyana driving the scope and direction of an international project that would ultimately involve eight partners, seven associates and well over 2,000 hours of donated time. 

From left to right: Guyana's Chancellor of the Judiciary Carl Singh, Justice Roy, Terry Smith (DLA Piper Associate) and Sheldon Krantz (Director of New Perimeter and a DLA Piper partner)

The project also pushed us as legal professionals.  Developing and facilitating workshops that were engaging and well received has increased our confidence and deepened our understanding of what it means to be credible legal professionals.  Additionally, we worked directly with senior partners, which gave us the opportunity to build valuable relationships within our Firm. 

The old adage “no pain, no gain,” need not apply to pro bono projects.  Junior associates should recognize them as win-win vehicles to do something good for a client as well as for their careers.  For us, collaboration with colleagues during the Guyana project both enhanced our legal skills and advanced the rule of law abroad.

J. Hess, Nicole C. King, and Terry Smith are associates at DLA Piper. Further detail on the Guyana project is available here.

If you would like to contribute a guest blog to The PBEye, please contact Christina Gordon, director of strategic communications and stewardship, with your proposed topic.  We would love to hear from you! 

*denotes a Signatory to the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge®