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Graphic: 21 SF Transactional panelists

2021 Summer Forum: Myriad of Opportunities for Transactional Pro Bono

By Amelia Patrick

The first practice-area panel discussion of the 2021 Summer Forum was held on Thursday, June 3, and the conversation focused on opportunities for pro bono work outside the courtroom. Not all pro bono work involves litigation. There are many opportunities for public-interest careers and pro bono opportunities in areas such as advocacy, transactional work, legal guidance, and advising that can make a powerful impact.

Susie Hoffman, Public Service Partner at Crowell & Moring and Washington Council of Lawyers Board Member moderated our panel which included:

  • Nicole Austin-Hillary, U.S. Program Executive Director, Human Rights Watch
  • Darryl Maxwell, Assistant Director, D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center Nonprofit Legal Assistance and Small Business Programs
  • James P. Joseph, Partner, Arnold & Porter
  • Walter Smith, Executive Director, DC Appleseed

The panel began by discussing their legal career journeys and the work they do at their respective organizations. They also shared the pro bono opportunities their organizations provide and what you can do to become involved in similar work in DC and across the country.

Nicole began by explaining that when she joined Human Rights Watch, she shifted the focus of her organization to make advancing racial justice one of its key US goals. She emphasized the great need for lawyers and summer associates at law firms to get involved with this type of pro bono work which contributes to protecting individual civil rights and increasing equality for all. There are several organizations across the country that provide similar pro bono opportunities to address civil rights violations, participate in systemic advocacy, and advance the fight for racial equity. Nicole suggested reaching out to a law firm’s pro bono coordinator or your law school’s public-interest office for assistance in finding these organizations.

One of the areas of particular pro bono need, especially during the pandemic and as we move toward recovery, is assistance for small businesses and non-profits. Darryl shared that much of the work that the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center’s Small Business Program is doing right now is helping non-profits grow in capacity and small businesses take advantage of pandemic assistance such as the PPP loans. He said that while founders of non-profits are normally full of passion and drive to help people, they normally are not well-versed in the complicated legal intricacies of starting and expanding their organizations. And the requirements for pandemic assistance for small businesses are complicated. Business owners need assistance in applying for and implementing that assistance. In D.C., non-profits and small businesses alike need pro bono assistance to continue to be able to serve their communities. Small businesses and non-profits across the U.S. are in need of similar assistance, and there are pro bono opportunities with many of the individual state bar associations and legal services providers.

Jim highlighted some of the pro bono work Arnold & Porter has been involved with recently. One of the unique projects partners and associates have been involved in was to support Kristen Clarke being confirmed as the first female Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. Another pro bono project includes helping small businesses during the COVID-19 crisis with loan forgiveness applications, understanding eviction rules, and helping unemployed workers understand how to file for unemployment benefits. Jim noted that pro bono projects are a great way for summer associates and more junior associates to get to know partners outside their practice group and develop skills that are useful across practice areas. Most law firms have pro bono counsel or coordinators that can help you find the project that is right for you. And pro bono work is something you can do no matter your office location, experience level, or subject-matter interest.

Walter detailed the efforts that DC Appleseed has undertaken with the help of lawyers from nearly every major law firm in town, particularly as the health crisis has exacerbated issues of economic disparities, educational equity, and health care inequities. One of DC Appleseed’s signature projects was the HIV AIDs epidemic plan, which transformed D.C. from being a city with one of the highest rates of HIV AIDs in the U.S. to one of the lowest. Additionally, DC Appleseed and their pro bono partners are advocating for voting representation or statehood for D.C. Their combined efforts are getting closer to seeing success. Besides D.C., the Appleseed Network spans 14 states and Mexico, providing pro bono opportunities to reduce poverty, combat discrimination, and advance the rule of law across the country through organizing, research, and policy advocacy.

The panelists also discussed how the effects of the pandemic and racial justice issues intersected with their work this year. All of the panelists highlighted their organization’s renewed focus on racial equity and representation in everything that they do. For instance, Darryl commented on his increased work in supporting local minority-owned businesses because of the impact these businesses can have in diversifying and empowering the community. All our panelists emphasized the importance of continually striving to learn more about the racial disparities that exist so that we are more aware of the work that needs to be done to achieve an equitable future. Pro bono lawyers are an important component of this work.

The panel ended by encouraging the lawyers and law students in the audience to be proactive and get involved in pro bono and public-interest work. Passion is the key to finding the work that will make you the most excited and helpful, so proactively search out organizations and opportunities to serve in areas that drive your passion.

Check out the video recording here.

Contribute to the Summer Forum conversation on social media using #SumFo21. And stay tuned for the remaining practice-area panels. We have many more pro bono opportunities to discuss.

Amelia Patrick is the 2021 Washington Council of Lawyers summer intern.

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