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“In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute.”
At the PBI Annual Dinner on October 4, Covington & Burling* will be honored with the 2018 John H. Pickering Award for its outstanding commitment to pro bono legal services. Covington has had a lengthy, noble pro bono history dating back to its founding nearly 100 years ago. We spoke with Kelly Voss, Pro Bono Counsel, and Alan Pemberton, Senior Counsel, about Covington’s pro bono program, some of their most powerful pro bono stories, and what the Dinner’s theme, Transforming Pro Bono–Together, means to them.
PBI: Covington has a rich pro bono history dating back to its founding. Can you give us the “origin story” behind the development of the pro bono program there?
KELLY VOSS: Covington’s tradition of public service dates to its founding 100 years ago, but pro bono work was initially generated through an informal system of individual lawyers seeking out and taking on matters. The roots of a structured pro bono program began to take hold in the mid-1950s, when the firm became deeply involved in supporting and advocating for civil legal aid resources and established a part-time associate rotation program with the Legal Aid Society in D.C. This was a precursor to our current loaned associate programs at Neighborhood Legal Services Program, where we started sending lawyers and other staff in 1969; the Children’s Law Center; and Bread for the City. We now loan eight associates a year to work for six-month stints at these legal aid organizations. At the time when the firm was expanding its civil legal aid work, it tapped a secretary to devote time and attention to coordinating and supporting the work of lawyers handling those cases. That secretary, Blossom Athey, became the first pro bono coordinator at Covington – and possibly the first pro bono coordinator at any firm – a role which she adopted in the 1950s and continued until the late 1990s.
PBI: Covington is a perennial – and recognized – leader in law firm pro bono – what is the scope of Covington’s pro bono work?
ALAN PEMBERTON: Our lawyers are leading advocacy and impact litigation on many of the most pressing legal issues of the day. This includes continuing to make time for the incredibly valuable work that we’ve always done to serve people living in poverty, to support the nonprofit sector, and to bolster the rule of law around the world.
In response to shifts in public policy and government enforcement, we have devoted significant resources to immigration-related matters in the last year, both expanding our representation of individuals who are affected, but also taking on systemic advocacy and litigation. We secured a nationwide injunction to halt the rescission of DACA and have engaged on a range of other immigration policy issues including challenges to the arbitrary detention of asylum seekers, immigration raids, the targeting of Sanctuary Cities for federal funding cuts, the Muslim ban, “extreme vetting,” and the proposed citizenship question in the Census.
In other impact matters, we have challenged the military ban on transgender service-members and the decision to slash nearly a million acres of public land from the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. We have expanded our voting rights practice, litigating a number of important voting rights cases, as well as advising an organization advocating for modernizing American presidential elections by moving to a popular vote system.
Even as the substance of our impact pro bono work shifts to respond to the needs of the moment, we have remained committed to seeking justice for individuals unable to afford counsel. Our commitment to civil legal aid remains strong, through our loaned associate program in D.C. and numerous other individual representations taken on throughout the firm to ensure that people living in poverty have access to counsel to protect their livelihoods, their health, and their families. We also have a robust criminal justice practice focused on protecting the rights of marginalized communities and indigent people whose liberty is threatened by the government.
PBI: We are excited that Brian Ferguson will share his story at our Annual Dinner in October – how did Covington first connect with him?
ALAN PEMBERTON: Brian was convicted of first-degree murder in West Virginia state court in 2002 and sentenced to life without parole. However, the state’s case was based entirely on circumstantial evidence and his family reached out in 2004 to seek Covington’s help. Covington stepped in as habeas counsel and developed new evidence demonstrating that Ferguson’s trial counsel had been constitutionally deficient due to its failure to investigate a report that another individual had confessed to the murder in front of three people. The trial court initially denied Covington’s habeas petition, but in 2008, the West Virginia Supreme Court reversed their decision and ordered an omnibus evidentiary hearing. After extensive discovery, the evidentiary hearing took place over three days in 2011. The Covington team presented evidence challenging trial counsel’s defense strategy and establishing the credible “alternate shooter” defense that trial counsel should have developed and presented. In 2012, the trial court granted Covington’s petition, vacated the conviction, and ordered a new trial. The state appealed, but the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals affirmed the favorable decision. We immediately petitioned for Brian to be released on bail, and in 2013, after 11 years in prison on a wrongful conviction, he stepped out of prison and returned to his family.
PBI: What are some other pro bono stories that you’d like to share?
KELLY VOSS: With over 1,000 active matters, there are too many “favorites” to name, but I have been very inspired by some of our recent work for NGOs combatting global poverty and instability. For example, Covington lawyers in several of our global offices have teamed up to advise Bring Hope Humanitarian Foundation, an international NGO, on the distribution of donated pharmaceutical products to refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan where people suffer from poor health care and specifically from shortages of needed medicines. In the U.S., we have been working with Brooklyn Bridge to Cambodia (BB2C), which works to provide subsistence rice farmers in Cambodia with tools to improve their harvests and working conditions. BB2C developed a rice seeder that addressed the specific problem of unduly labor-intensive and unhealthy rice planting techniques that have prevailed in Cambodia for centuries. What took 40 women two days to plant, BB2C’s seeder can do in four hours, using less seed and other materials and resulting in more abundant crops. The technology is now spreading beyond Cambodia, throughout all of Southeast Asia. Covington drafted, prosecuted, and procured the patent on behalf BB2C. The patent recently received the prestigious “Patents for Humanity Award” from the United States Patent & Trademark Office.
PBI: Pro bono isn’t just for associates. Covington does an outstanding job of getting the firm’s partners and senior lawyers meaningfully involved in pro bono, an area where many other firms struggle – how do you do that? How does the firm encourage a pro bono-friendly culture?
ALAN PEMBERTON: This is an area where we have always devoted a lot of attention. Achieving broad participation among senior lawyers is of critical importance to the firm’s management, as well as to sustaining a vital pro bono culture at the firm. Firm leadership is incredibly supportive of pro bono and our chair actively encourages partners and counsel to participate in pro bono endeavors, including striving to regularly meet the ABA’s 50-hour annual pro bono benchmark. We are lucky in that lawyers tend to be attracted to and stay with Covington in part because of its dedication to pro bono service. With that in mind, the barriers to getting senior lawyers to consistently participate in pro bono work tend to be practical and largely driven by time constraints and the competing demands that senior lawyers can face in their day-to-day work. To overcome those barriers, we devote significant attention to developing an array of pro bono matters and modes of pro bono engagement, recognizing that variety in terms of subject matter, scope, and time commitment is key. For some senior lawyers, being able to join a team litigating one of the hot legal issues of the day will draw them into the practice, for others, having a steady stream of small and more predictable matters will be a better fit. We spend time getting to know our lawyers, getting a feel for their practices and interests, and ensuring that they receive regular contact from members of the Public Service Committee and the pro bono program’s professional team about the importance of doing pro bono and the variety of pro bono opportunities available. Our basic strategy is to motivate and then make it as easy as possible for lawyers to act.
PBI: What led you to forge a relationship with PBI? Why should firms join PBI’s Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge® initiative?
ALAN PEMBERTON: When Covington joined the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge as a charter signatory we were already committed to and meeting the core principles of the Challenge, including devoting at least 5 percent of billable hours to pro bono work and emphasizing civil justice for the poor in our pro bono practice. Nonetheless, being a part of the Challenge was and is important for the firm because of the critical unmet need for pro bono legal services, particularly in the area of civil legal aid. We felt that by joining the Challenge, we could help PBI make the case that it is possible to do good while doing well so that other firms would take the leap to grow or establish their own pro bono programs by committing to the Challenge’s pro bono benchmarks. Given the dramatic growth in pro bono services over the last 25 years, it seems clear that PBI’s idea has worked – getting firms to measure pro bono is an important and effective step to drive up the availability of pro bono legal services.
PBI: The theme of PBI’s Annual Dinner this year is Transforming Pro Bono – Together, what does that mean to you and to a firm with such a great commitment to pro bono?
KELLY VOSS: Success in legal matters and pro bono matters in particular, hinges on the ability of lawyers to work together. Sharing and teamwork are deeply rooted in Covington’s culture and those values have a positive impact on all of the firm’s legal work, including our pro bono matters. Because our lawyers excel at working collaboratively and tapping into the skills and expertise of others at the firm, I know that when we bring a pro bono client into the firm, that client will benefit from the full range of Covington’s experience and expertise as their matters unfold and develop.
Being able to work together is especially important in the pro bono context because pro bono as a sector is inherently collaborative. Having a successful pro bono program is all about developing relationships that extend beyond the firm to facilitate partnerships between the private legal sector and public interest legal organizations; between legal advocates and other community stakeholders and advocates; and between lawyers and their clients. When all of these forces come together we are able to work more effectively, to innovate new ways to achieve success for our clients, and to transform what justice means in the lives of individuals.
A recent Stanford University-led study found that a majority of adults over the age of 50 highly value “prosocial” behaviors: actions that are positive, caring, helpful and of benefit to others. As a benefit, those who engage in prosocial behaviors reported a more positive outlook on life and a positive effect on health.
PBI has championed this concept for since 2005, when it launched the Second Acts® project, an innovative initiative, in partnership with our core constituencies of major law firms, in-house legal departments, and public interest organizations, to support transitioning and retired lawyers who are interested in second volunteer careers in public interest law. Late-career attorneys have a wealth of skills, knowledge, and experience that, when harnessed, can have a sizable impact on economic and social justice.
The great news is that it’s catching on. In PBI’s 2016 survey, 29 percent of respondents reported having a Second Acts Program, which is approximately double the rate of 2006 (15 percent). Learn more about the program and download our toolkit.
One of the many valuable resources that Corporate Pro Bono offers is a series of In-House Pro Bono in Practice Profiles that features existing pro bono programs at legal departments and Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) chapters. Although every legal department and ACC chapter is unique, much can be learned through the experiences of peers. Best Practice Profiles provide examples of methods, tools, and policies to use in developing and expanding pro bono programs. Each profile highlights program features, such as program size, leadership structure, how the department handles professional liability insurance, whether and how non-lawyers participate, how the department communicates about pro bono opportunities and recognizes pro bono achievements, partnerships, and representative pro bono projects. The profiles offer information about the history of each pro bono program, taking an in-depth look at the path a department or chapter took to build and expand its pro bono program. Of particular interest, each profile includes a section on “Lessons Learned,” which can assist both new and mature pro bono programs in finding solutions to common challenges and avoiding pitfalls.
This month, we are featuring the newly-released Best Practice Profiles for AT&T** and Bank of America**, whose general counsel are co-chairs of PBI’s Annual Dinner on October 4, 2018. AT&T’s profile shows how AT&T formalized its pro bono program in 2009 and then became a Corporate Pro Bono Challenge® signatory in 2010. Now, AT&T attorneys participate in more than 40 approved pro bono programs, ranging from representing low-income clients in immigration matters, to preparing wills for low-income individuals at clinics, to providing legal advice to nonprofits on corporate law, contracts, employment, and other business issues. One of AT&T’s key “Lessons Learned” is the importance of having support from senior leadership for pro bono. When leadership sends the message that pro bono is supported, members of the legal department feel empowered and encouraged to take time away from their regular assignments to engage in pro bono matters.
Bank of America’s profile describes how its formal pro bono program launched in 2005-2006, when the Bank’s then-General Counsel signed the Corporate Pro Bono Challenge® initiative. It includes examples of their numerous long- and short-term pro bono partnerships with law firms around the country, and highlights representative pro bono projects, including serving veterans at clinics, staffing naturalization and immigration clinics, providing legal services to low-income senior citizens, and providing family court, clinic-based pro bono assistance. One of Bank of America’s critical “Lessons Learned” is that legal department staff, including paralegals and administrative staff, are just as enthusiastic about providing pro bono as lawyers. Therefore, the legal department has sought both to structure its pro bono program and to offer pro bono opportunities that will maximize non-lawyer engagement.
Read more about other departments’ and chapters’ pro bono programs on CPBO’s website (www.cpbo.org), and look for more Best Practice Profiles to be released this fall.
Can government officials, including the president, block you on social media? Can schools discipline students for protesting? Can a court order a news outlet to remove public information from an article it has published? Pro Bono to Protect the First Amendment, the latest webinar from PBI, answers these questions and more. Scheduled for September 12 at 1:00 pm EST, this thought-provoking presentation covers current events and their impact on the First Amendment Freedoms of Speech, the Press, and the Right to Assemble, and how pro bono lawyers can be of assistance.
Coming in October–in recognition of Domestic Violence month–look for our webinar Assisting Survivors of Domestic Violence on October 11 at 12:00 pm EST.
In case you missed it, last month’s webinar Serving Our Seniors, is now available on demand. This program covered how we can ensure that low‐income and other eligible seniors age with dignity. From advanced planning to government benefits and housing protections to fraud and abuse prevention, this session explored a range of pro bono opportunities and developments.
PBI’s Annual Dinner is fast approaching and you are invited! Join PBI for another inspirational evening that celebrates pro bono legal services. Meet and mingle with long-time pro bono champions and rising stars from in-house departments and law firms, leaders from prominent public interest organizations, and other influencers of the bench and bar.
Celebrate stellar pro bono efforts as PBI presents the:
MassMutual’s Law Department**
in partnership with the
Hampden County Bar Association Legal Clinic
United Airlines’ Legal Department
in partnership with
Seyfarth Shaw LLP*†
and Cabrini Green Legal Aid
Based on the popularity of previous dinners, we expect a sold-out gathering. See highlights from the 2017 Annual Dinner.
Happy trails to the PBI summer intern class of 2018! It was another amazing and inspiring group–Sheehan Scholars and an intern– who joined us to help advance PBI’s mission to increase access to justice. Great jobs all around by Arlyn Upshaw (University of Michigan Law School), Matti Vagnoni (American University College of Law), and
John Oliver Nick Martire (University of Michigan).
Bob Sheehan, who oversees the pro bono program at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom*†, former Executive Partner (1994-2009) and Co-Chair of the Law Firm Pro Bono Project Advisory Committee (2001-2015), and his family provided the financial support to launch this program in 2010, which has been named in his honor in recognition of his extraordinary pro bono leadership. We are grateful to the Sheehan family for their generosity.
Check out the latest podcast from the Pro Bono Happy Hour to hear these three future stars talk about what drew them to PBI, what projects they worked on while they were here, and what they’re going to do with their last few days of summer vacation.
* denotes a Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge® signatory
** denotes a Corporate Pro Bono Challenge® signatory
† denotes a Law Firm Pro Bono Project® member