Firm leaders discuss Latham’s pro bono commitment to New York.
On February 11, 2016, New York City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito announced the creation of an independent commission to address challenges at the New York City Department of Correction facilities at Rikers Island. The commission will be chaired by Latham & Watkins of counsel and former Chief Judge of the State of New York Jonathan Lippman. In addition to Judge Lippman’s role, Latham will provide pro bono legal services to aid in the Commission’s efforts. Michèle Penzer, managing partner of the firm’s New York office, and Kevin McDonough, litigation partner and member of the Pro Bono Committee, explain why pro bono matters at Latham and how the firm’s work for the Commission fits in with the firm’s broader pro bono program.
In 2015, the firm’s New York office provided nearly 30,000 hours of free legal services to low-income individuals and nonprofit organizations. What does the Latham pro bono program look like in New York?
McDonough: We work in nearly every area of public interest law, with particular focus on immigration, fair housing and Holocaust reparations matters, and we do extensive work in support of New York City’s low income entrepreneurs. It looks different for each lawyer because we encourage our colleagues to pursue qualified pro bono matters they find compelling or of interest. Attorneys receive “billable hour” credit for all time worked on pro bono matters without any cap.
Penzer: We also cultivate and maintain partnerships with many legal services organizations in our community. These include The Legal Aid Society, NYLAG, NYLPI, Fair Housing Justice Center, the Lawyers’ Alliance for New York, Sanctuary for Families, Human Rights First, the New York City Department of Small Business Services and many others. They provide a critical service by identifying low income individuals and families with vital legal needs and connecting them to us, helping to make our pro bono program as effective as it can be.
What are you working on in the pro bono sphere?
Penzer: Right now I’m supervising a case for unaccompanied minor siblings and a U Visa petition.
McDonough: I took on my first pro bono matter for Latham when I was a summer associate representing a client seeking special immigrant juvenile status, and pro bono work has been an important part of my professional experience at Latham ever since then. Currently I supervise teams of lawyers working on applications for asylum on behalf of victims of violence and political persecution and petitions under the Violence Against Women Act on behalf of immigrant victims of domestic violence. In addition, I have successfully represented a death row inmate in post-conviction proceedings and many clients engaged in civil rights and civil forfeiture litigation. In my role on the local Pro Bono Committee, I also help decide which matters our office takes on.
Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman recently joined the firm in New York following his retirement from the bench, where he was a leading voice on the importance of access to justice. How will his arrival at Latham shape pro bono efforts in New York?
Penzer: We’re delighted to have Judge Lippman at the firm. His commitment to and achievements in the access to justice sphere are inspiring, and we are excited about the possibilities of extending and scaling our efforts in these areas with his support.
McDonough: Having long admired Judge Lippman’s efforts to encourage pro bono efforts among the private bar, I’m thrilled to be able to call him a colleague. And I’m particularly looking forward to helping shape the firm’s pro bono efforts with regard to the Commission, alongside Judge Lippman in his role as chair and working with all of the commissioners.
Latham & Watkins has donated more than US$1.1 billion in pro bono legal services since 2000. Why is it important for the firm and our lawyers to give back in this way?
Penzer: Pro bono and community service are deeply rooted in our firm culture, which is reflected in the substantial level of engagement in New York and across the firm each year. Today we have strong pro bono programs around the world, and our personnel volunteer and fundraise for variety of causes. I think of it as both a duty to others in our communities and an opportunity to broaden our own perspectives.
McDonough: And it’s not only the volume of activity – more important is the substance of our pro bono work. The vast majority of our work is in the form of direct legal services to underserved individuals and communities. As lawyers, we are uniquely qualified to facilitate access to justice, regardless of means and circumstances. We get as much or more out of the experience than what we give, and we are very lucky to have an opportunity to engage in this important way.