Taconic Correctional Facility in Westchester County is a world away from the midtown Manhattan offices of Davis Polk. But every month for more than 10 years, Sharon Katz, Senior Counsel at Davis Polk, and a group of the firm’s attorneys visit Taconic or another state prison, helping incarcerated women with family law questions through a program of Volunteers of Legal Service.
“It’s a great experience for our lawyers and for me too,” said Sharon, who is the longtime co-chair of the firm's Pro Bono Committee. “It sounds a little trite but there is personal satisfaction in really feeling that you’ve helped someone in a very personal, intimate way that can really make a difference in their life.”
Davis Polk has a longstanding commitment to pro bono, and in 2008 the firm took it one step further, bringing in Ronnie Abrams to serve as Special Counsel for Pro Bono. After working at Davis Polk earlier in her career, Ronnie served 10 years as a federal prosecutor in Manhattan before returning to the firm in her current role. In July, President Obama nominated her to serve as to serve as a U.S. District Court Judge for the Southern District of New York. In November, the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously voted in support of her nomination.
“I've always viewed this position as a unique opportunity to do justice,” Ronnie said. “Because we have so many lawyers with different areas of expertise interested in pro bono, we're able to assist so many in need
- whether it's by helping establish a homeless center through corporate or tax advice or representing a battered woman, asylum seeker fleeing persecution or veteran. I feel grateful to have been a part of these efforts.”
In her role as Special Counsel, Ronnie oversees the program, mentoring young associates, working on and supervising cases, reaching out to legal aid organizations, and working internally to increase interest. When new lawyers arrive at the firm, Ronnie and her colleague, Pro Bono Coordinator Amy Rossabi, take time to explore their interests, helping them find ways to follow their passions in pro bono work. And it’s not just lawyers who provide support to clients. Non-lawyers provide translation services, escort people to meetings, and help with forms.
“We publicize work internally with enthusiasm,” says Sharon. “For example, at the monthly litigation lunches, there’s always a pro bono case mentioned. They promote it as they do billable work.”
Ronnie also serves as counsel to the New York State Justice Task Force, a permanent task force created by New York State Chief Judge Lippman that includes representatives from all participants in the criminal justice system working to examine the causes of wrongful convictions and recommend reforms to prevent them in the future. The Task Force has made recommendations on improving eyewitness testimony, recording of interrogations to prevent false confessions, access to DNA testing post-conviction and expansion of the state DNA databank.
Ronnie noted that the firm is interested in expanding its involvement in projects that associates can handle independently, helping them build skills and confidence. For example, in the much-publicized Saigon Grill case, brought on behalf of 36 current and former employees of a pair of popular Vietnamese restaurants in Manhattan, junior associates conducted much of the trial. The case resulted in a $4.6 million award for the plaintiffs, who were paid below minimum wage and did not receive overtime compensation for work weeks that lasted as long as 80 hours.
"Although helping those less fortunate is of course the primary purpose of our work, it serves as well to provide useful opportunities for our junior lawyers to develop their legal skills, whether in taking depositions, arguing in court or drafting corporate documents,” Ronnie said. “Indeed, just having your own client relationship is important for one's professional development."
Ronnie and her colleagues are always on the lookout for legal services partners that can provide interesting pro bono matters. Davis Polk seeks partners who can provide supervision and training for areas outside the firm’s expertise. They also partner with clients on pro bono work, a trend that’s increased in recent years. Recently, they partnered with Citigroup on the City Bar Justice Center’s Neighborhood Entrepreneur Law Project, which provides legal services to low and mid-income micro-entrepreneurs.
For some Davis Polk attorneys, the passion for pro bono work continues after retirement. “We’re very fortunate in that we have had people who have retired from the partnership and who stay on to continue their pro bono involvement,” Sharon said. Retired partners have taken on large pro bono cases in areas including death penalty and mortgage modification scams.
It’s that kind of commitment that has allowed the firm to double its pro bono hours in recent years, even without having a pro bono requirement in place. And Ronnie and Sharon make it clear that the firm’s efforts will continue.
“Everyone knows that even if every lawyer in the state undertook pro bono work, there are more people in need than lawyers can help. But the more that organizations and people in positions of power speak to the need, the more young lawyers will get on the bandwagon,” Sharon said.