16 December 2014
Droits d’Urgence has provided free legal advice and assistance to underserved residents of Paris for close to 20 years. The humanitarian organization’s mission is to help people become fully aware of their legal rights and promote access to justice. Today more than 300 volunteers — including lawyers, magistrates and other legal professionals — work with the nonprofit organization’s clients and staff.
A group of 15 lawyers from Latham & Watkins’ Paris office has volunteered for the past two years, helping to staff Droits d’Urgence’s bi-weekly legal clinic and advise clients on immigration, criminal and labor law issues and help clients with the administrative paperwork associated with applying for French government-run and city-run social assistance programs. “The firm’s relationship with Droits d’Urgence enables our lawyers to be in front of a different reality and to directly work with people in dire need of legal assistance,” explains Latham partner Pierre-Louis Clero.
Latham partner François Mary, who chairs the Paris office’s Pro Bono Committee, is responsible for the creation of this growing partnership with Droits d’Urgence. “I believe that Latham is the only international law firm in Paris that has entered into a pro bono partnership regarding legal clinics with Droits d’Urgence,” said Mary. “This relationship has enabled us to diversify the Paris office’s pro bono program by giving our lawyers an opportunity to be helpful in a different manner and interact with a different kind of pro bono client than the charities and social enterprises we typically work with.”
Making an Impact for Pro Bono Clients
“Volunteering at the legal clinic gives us the opportunity to meet people in need of legal advice whose circumstances are very different from our commercial clients,” said Latham associate Louis Paumier. “And it exposes us to unusual, often urgent legal situations and questions because the person sitting in front of us is often in a very dire legal, financial and/or health condition.”
The lawyers and other legal professionals who staff Droits d’Urgence’s legal clinic have 30-45 minutes to meet with each client during the three hours that it is open every other Wednesday. “We listen to their story and try to help them,” said Clero. Droits d’Urgence provides each legal clinic volunteer with training materials and precedent cases to help them serve each client’s unique needs, and a trained member of their staff is always on hand to assist the volunteers. “Sometimes the clients need help formulating the right questions to ask, writing a letter, filling out a form or understanding their legal problems and how they can improve their situation. The assistance we provide is not always technical legal advice,” said Clero.
“It’s a wonderful human experience for the legal clinic volunteers,” added Clero. “They feel that they can assist these pro bono clients with what can be an overwhelming and consuming day-to-day legal issue, whether it’s a criminal charge or it’s impacting someone’s right to stay in France or having their family join them in France.”
The Evolution of Pro Bono in France
France has a government-funded legal aid program but the demand for assistance often exceeds the limited resources available, and organizations like Droits d’Urgence and its volunteers have stepped in to fill this gap. “Historically speaking, this is one of the reasons why pro bono work has not been a high priority in the French legal market,” explained Mary. “That being said, the Paris Bar Association has been pushing very hard to develop pro bono within the Paris legal market.”
"We have worked hard to scale up our pro bono activity in Paris over the last several years and were thrilled to have more than 70 percent of our Paris-based lawyers engage on pro bono matters in 2014," said Wendy Atrokhov, Latham's Public Service Counsel. "While pro bono opportunities remain less abundant in Europe as compared to the United States, the values that drive attorney engagement are very similar. It’s been an inspiration to see how resourceful and proactive our Paris office has been in developing opportunities to provide legal support to charities, social enterprises and, through the legal clinic, some of their community’s most vulnerable individuals.”