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Pro Bono

Pandemic, inclusion, pro bono & racism kick-off discussion at VOLS leadership summit

Natalie Runyon  Director & Head of the Talent Platform at Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute

Natalie Runyon  Director & Head of the Talent Platform at Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute

“I have never before experienced so many of my colleagues and students of color that in this moment, they are incapacitated. Moms are terrified. This moment in the country is profoundly different,” said Mary Lu Bilek, Dean of City University of New York (CUNY) Law School.

Bilek’s comments came during the opening virtual plenary of the Volunteers of Legal Service (VOLS) leadership summit on June 4 that explored the intersections of pro bono and diversity, equity & inclusion (DEI) as the country was reeling from the tragic killing of George Floyd and the related protests. The event, a partnership between VOLS and Thomson Reuters, will also features virtual workshops on June 11.

Cultural humility is an imperative for pro bono lawyers

At the plenary event, panelists discussed what is required of lawyers to be effective advocates for their pro bono clients, and all agreed that cultural humility is a crucial skill. Panelist Lillian M. Moy, Executive Director at the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York, framed cultural humility as an opportunity to hone the skill at the intersection of diversity & inclusion and pro bono attorneys.

Bilek discussed the importance of cultural humility in the context of the larger racial and ethnic gap in the legal profession and the economic, gender, and educational disparities between volunteer pro bono lawyers and their clients in the U.S. Of particular importance:

  • African American and Latinx attorneys make up only 10% of the profession, and yet, 46% of pro bono clients are Black or Latinx;
  • A four-person income of families in poverty is $32,000 while the median pay for lawyers is $120,000;
  • Black individuals are twice as likely to live in poverty as compared to white people; and
  • 64% of lawyers are men while most pro bono clients are women.

Panelist Roger Maldonado, Partner at Smith, Gambrell & Russell and past president of the New York City Bar Association, emphasized that pro bono attorneys, who often come from large law firms, have limited contact to communities of color as clients, and therefore, there is a need for additional training, education, and awareness. For example, the NYC Bar Justice Center partners with Legal Aid to help volunteer attorneys do a better job at serving pro bono clients, in particular how to avoid appearing as the “white savior” and better understand where the client is coming from. Such understanding can foster an environment that ensures the clients trust their pro bono lawyer and feel safe to share their experiences.

Another panelist, Kim Koopersmith, Partner & Chairperson at Akin Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, addressed the requirement by illustrating how Akin Gump trains its lawyers to serve pro bono clients by educating them on the client experience. In addition, she noted the importance of making sure the firm signals its commitment to the value of pro bono work, despite the fact that it can cut into attorneys’ billable hours. Akin Gump has always allowed unlimited pro bono hours, and 791 of its 850 lawyers do pro bono work with a firm partner being in charge of the program. The firm also funds an Equal Justice fellowship and pro bono scholarships.

Pandemic exacerbating already-existing inequities

The need for pro bono work has spiked because of the devastating impact of COVID-19, Moy explained, adding that the pandemic has worsened existing disparities. Indeed, as much as 45% of cases since March are related to the public health crisis, she noted, and 75% of the recent intakes have been public assistance matters.

In fact, the pandemic has further exposed the health gaps along race and ethnic lines that existed prior to the crisis, the panel agreed, noting that a recent study showed that black Americans are 3.5-times more likely to die of COVID-19 than white Americans, and Latinx people are almost twice as likely to die of the disease compared with white people. Panel moderator Paula Edgar, Partner of consulting firm Inclusion Strategy Solutions, pointed out how, from an economic standpoint, most of the workers described as essential, which include retail workers at grocery stores, were people of color and women; and how most of those nonessential hourly workers that lost their jobs, also were people of color and women.

Finally, a few panelists described how each of their institutions is responding to COVID-19. Thomas Kim, Chief Legal Officer at Thomson Reuters, described how the company has doubled the amount of paid volunteer hours from 16 to 32 in 2020, donated $1 million to help rebuild Minneapolis, and encourages its lawyers to contribute at least 20 pro bono hours annually.

Akin Gump’s Koopersmith said the firm was offering equal credit for DEI work as is given to billable work, a key step for making sure the firm’s culture supports attorneys seeking to advance DEI within the firm.

Maldonado of Smith Gambrell underscored the importance of Akin Gump’s move in diversifying top executive roles within the legal profession. “The NYC Bar recommended that law firms promote equal amount of credit between pro bono/DEI and billable work,” he said, adding that if law firms don’t have a policy for everyone to be involved in DEI, progress in diversifying the top echelons of law firms is going to be tough.

CUNY Law’s Bilek agreed that everyone needs to seek solutions for inequities within the legal profession and society. “We cannot rely on our nonwhite colleagues to carry the torch,” she said.

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