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From a passing grade to head of the pro bono class

By Kristina Horton Flaherty
Staff Writer

Just six years ago, the international law firm of Latham & Watkins was receiving little more than a passing grade when it came to providing free legal services to those most in need.

But then the firm pledged to ramp up its contribution. Last year alone, it exceeded its promise by providing more than 131,000 hours of diverse, no-cost legal services nationwide. That amounts to nearly 106 hours per Latham attorney and some $37 million in legal fees. In addition, more than 75 percent of Latham's U.S. attorneys took part in what is now considered one of the nation's top pro bono programs.

"Latham & Watkins' meteoric rise in the pro bono rankings serves as an example to all of us of what a law firm can accomplish when it commits its legal resources to benefiting the community," said Debbie Segal, chair of the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service.

For its efforts, Latham & Watkins is one of five recipients, including three individuals and a corporate legal department, that will be presented the 2003 ABA Pro Bono Publico Award this month at the ABA's annual meeting in San Francisco.

The turnaround in Latham's pro bono program kicked off in 1998 when the firm signed on to the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge, an initiative co-sponsored by the Pro Bono Institute and the ABA, with a pledge to contribute 60 hours a year per attorney by 2000. At the time, the firm's management saw the challenge as a "mechanism" for bolstering its pro bono program.

Latham's pro bono counsel Steven Schulman

"Top law firms are top law firms because they do everything well," said Latham's pro bono counsel Steven Schulman. "We realized that there was one thing we weren't doing well and that was pro bono."

But by mid-2000, it appeared that the 60-hour-per-attorney goal was still out of reach. So Latham's San Francisco-based managing partner Robert Dell shot off a formal memorandum to the managing partners of all Latham offices nationwide to stress that the goal would be met — and it was.

The critical policy, Schulman says, is that Latham's pro bono clients are treated the same as other clients. And pro bono client hours are tallied the same, hour for hour, as commercial client hours. "Pro bono here is not just a nights-and-weekends activity," he said. "This is supposed to be part of your career."

Attorneys are free to choose pro bono work suited to their interests and are encouraged to come up with new project ideas. The firm's pro bono services range from staffing a domestic violence clinic in Orange County, to handling transactional matters for a youth center — "A Place Called Home" — in South Central Los Angeles, to representing the families of Sept. 11 victims in a variety of matters.

Through Latham's signature Child Refugee Project, attorneys represent lone child refugees, visit child detention centers and work to improve the system's means of addressing the legal needs of young refugees. This summer, together with the ABA, attorneys from eight Latham offices across the nation will tour adult detention centers to see whether standards are being met.

In addition, the firm sponsors two annual Equal Justice Works fellowships that allow new law school graduates to work full-time for organizations serving the legal needs of the poor. Next year, the firm plans to add two more positions.

In Washington, D.C., a few attorneys even launched a non-legal volunteer effort called the "Buildable Hours" project in which attorneys strap on tool belts and help construct homes for the impoverished. Even though the non-legal work does not count as official pro bono time at Latham, the idea has taken hold in the firm's New York, San Diego and Los Angeles offices as well.

The disadvantaged are not the only ones to benefit from Latham's "tidal wave" of pro bono work, says Schulman. Young Latham attorneys gain training, the firm looks good to the community and the volunteers benefit from an experience that is often personally rewarding.

"It alters the way they think of themselves as lawyers," he said. "I think they see themselves as part of the larger community."

Take the homeless clinic a few blocks away from Schulman's Washington, D.C., office, for example. "It's so easy to get lost in your own professional and personal life and forget that there are people living six blocks away in a completely different world," Schulman said. But once a month, a few Latham attorneys travel the six blocks to help some homeless clients deal with their legal problems.

"And that will change the way you think," Schulman said, "at least for a while."

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