A year after the murder of George Floyd sparked worldwide protests, legal aid experts say that there has been a noticeable and sustained increase in interest in pro bono opportunities with a racial justice component, which providers hope will prove to be a long-term commitment.
Several legal aid providers told Law360 Pulse that they believe that there are several reasons pro bono work has gone up, including the coronavirus pandemic and the 2020 election, but that the protests following Floyd’s death seem to have created a lasting interest in work that addresses racial injustice, suggesting that firms are following through on the commitments many made in the summer of 2020.
One Year After George Floyd
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Providers were also cautiously optimistic that the new wave of pro bono interest will last, saying they are working to develop or expand opportunities that lend themselves to ongoing participation and hoping firms will respond in kind.
“It’s safe to say at this point that the focus on racial justice is widespread,” said Eve Runyon, president and CEO of the nonprofit Pro Bono Institute, which aims to advance pro bono work across the legal industry. And while it’s still early, she added, “I do think firms are approaching this in a way that would allow for sustained engagement.”
In the wake of the murder of Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin and the nationwide protests that sprang up afterward, many law firms responded by declaring their support for racial justice, announcing initiatives such as new diversity and inclusion programs. Many also pledged charitable donations to organizations working to address racial injustice and to increase their own pro bono work on the matter.
For instance, Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP announced a racial justice fellowship program that would allow at least five of the firm’s lawyers to devote a year each to working full-time on civil rights and social justice issues. Other firms, including Perkins Coie LLP and Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP, dispatched attorneys to work pro bono on behalf of protesters, such as through lawsuits alleging civil rights violations.
Phong Wong, the pro bono coordinator at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, said that as protests erupted in the city she was immediately hit with a wave of requests from firms large and small, most of them initially looking to represent protesters who had been arrested. Wong said some of the prospective partners were clearly unfamiliar with the legal aid landscape — LAFLA, as a civil legal aid organization, does not represent people in criminal cases — but that the enthusiasm was genuine.
That enthusiasm has led to projects like the Law Firm Antiracism Alliance, which connects law firms with legal service organizations with the goal of combating racism, and has led to even more donations as the year went on. It also seems to have materialized into an ongoing increase in pro bono work connected to racial justice, according to experts.
Runyon said that the Pro Bono Institute is still in the process of compiling data about recent trends in pro bono work, but that data from firms participating in PBI’s Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge and the feedback she’s been hearing suggests that there has been a broad increase.
“There has been an increase in the total number of pro bono hours by PBI’s challenge firms, which is really exciting news, and we certainly did see last year a new focus or renewed focus on racial justice work,” Runyon said.
Pro bono coordinators at several legal aid organizations said that assessment is consistent with their experience as well. And in many cases, they said, firms are specifically looking for opportunities tied to racial justice.
“I’ve had several different law firms reach out to me and want to assist Black and brown communities or assist with [work] with a racial justice angle,” said Jayme Cassidy, chief diversity officer and pro bono advocacy director at Legal Services of Greater Miami.
Cassidy and others said that the driving forces behind these efforts seem to vary from firm to firm, but that in many cases it is younger attorneys, rather than firm management, who appear to be behind the push.
“In my opinion, I think it’s the associate base that has pushed for the move, frankly — younger associates that would have been out marching if they didn’t think it would affect their career,” she said.
But at some other firms, she said, leadership or partners seem to be the most engaged.
Melissa Picciola, director of volunteer services at Legal Aid Chicago, said she has noticed a similar pattern, but that clients also seem to be playing a role.
“We talk about how diversity at law firms is often driven by their paying clients demanding more diversity in the teams that serve them, and I think there’s something similar going on here,” she said.
Providers agreed that thus far firms seem to be following through on their commitments. In most cases, the partnerships definitely haven’t been an empty gesture from firm management; training and information sessions have been well-attended, and volunteers have shown up to do the work, the providers said.
William Silverman, a partner at Proskauer Rose LLP who heads up the firm’s pro bono programs, said that since the start of 2020 there has been tremendous interest in this type of work.
“Racial justice has always been a big part of our pro bono program,” he said. “In light of not just George Floyd but lots of unfortunate recent events, we’ve definitely increased the number of opportunities. One of our fastest-growing areas [of pro bono] is criminal justice reform.”
One way that the firm has responded, Silverman said, is to look for work that not only allows attorneys to represent individuals but to tackle systemic issues directly. For instance, the firm has partnered with John Jay College of Criminal Justice on a research project that gathers data relevant to the population of people in jails, which he said will hopefully provide information for evidence-based reform efforts.
The firm is also working with the American Civil Liberties Union in Louisiana on its Justice Lab project, which aims to address racist policing practices, and with the Southern District of New York’s Reentry through Intensive Supervision and Employment, or RISE, Court, where the firm helps people recently released from prison handle civil legal matters, such as child support or old parking tickets, that can inhibit their ability to successfully reenter society.
Silverman, Cassidy, Picciola and Wong all emphasized that they want to do whatever they can to sustain the current interest in racial justice pro bono work.
One way legal aid organizations have responded to the outpouring of interest is to develop racial justice-oriented programs that will lend themselves to ongoing engagement for years to come. While an attorney who takes a particular civil rights case might decide they’re done after that case is over, Picciola noted, an attorney who’s been trained how to handle expungements or public benefits appeals, for instance, can potentially keep working on a few cases at a time indefinitely.
“We want this to be a regular part of [firms’] pro bono culture,” Cassidy said. “My goal is to bring firms in based on what they say they want to do and create projects that they will embrace long term that fit into their wheelhouse … so that they will be sustained, long-term pro bono partners with us — with the hope that sometimes they will feel like they’re part of our family and will embrace other pro bono projects.”
Organizations are also trying to educate attorneys and make clear that racial justice work doesn’t always look like anti-discrimination lawsuits or defending clients from biased criminal prosecution.
“At Legal Aid Chicago, 87% of our clients are people of color,” Picciola said. “It’s all civil rights work.”
Working on eviction cases or voting rights cases or doing education access work also helps clients affected by historic racial inequality, she said.
Wong said she makes a point to pitch LAFLA’s expungement project in particular, which helps clients navigate California’s process for clearing their criminal records. Expungements might not be what attorneys have in mind when they think about addressing systemic injustice in the criminal justice system, she said, but it’s easy to help them see the importance.
They also agreed that the more attorneys they are able to make regular volunteers the better, noting that with the end of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s nationwide moratorium on evictions, providers are bracing for a massive wave of housing cases that they expect will have a disproportionate impact on communities of color.
Overall, legal aid providers agreed that they are still uncertain if these commitments represent a lasting shift in pro bono interest, but they are optimistic, hopeful that the groundwork has been laid and that something fundamental has changed.
“In the past, I’d get comments from folks [working on expungements] like, ‘Oh my gosh, I just helped someone convicted of attempted murder; I don’t know how I feel about that,'” Wong said. She said would often find herself walking volunteers through an explanation of how the client may have received an unfair sentence or been otherwise mistreated by the criminal justice system and deserved a second chance.
“I feel like I don’t have to explain that as much now, post-George Floyd,” she said. “People just understand the issue of race better.”
By Emma Cueto
–Editing by Alanna Weissman and Michael Watanabe.
Originally posted on Law360 on May 26, 2021, at 2:02 PM EDT. To read the original article follow the link