33 Firms Honored at 40 at 50 Judicial Pro Bono Breakfast

By John Murph

April 5, 2019

Judge Merrick Garland

U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit Chief Judge Merrick Garland called upon lawyers and law firms to ensure that access to justice is a reality for those who cannot afford legal help. 

On April 4 the chief judges of the District of Columbia federal courts honored 33 Washington, D.C.-based law firms at the 16th annual 40 at 50 Judicial Pro Bono Recognition Breakfast for their outstanding commitment to pro bono service in the past year. Held at the E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse, the event recognizes firms where at least 40 percent of their attorneys dedicated 50 hours or more of pro bono work, representing people with limited financial resources or charitable organizations at no cost.

The top honor went to Perkins Coie LLP, where 74 percent of its attorneys put in 50 hours or more of pro bono work in 2018. Among this year’s honorees, five firms — Jenner & Block LLP, Miller & Chevalier Chartered, Perkins Coie, Ropes & Gray LLP, and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP — had at least 60 percent of their attorneys contributing 50 hours or more toward pro bono service.

Lindsay B. Allen, an intellectual property lawyer at Perkins Coie, said her firm “enforces and celebrates pro bono work,” resulting in increased participation among attorneys. “We receive billable credit; we don’t have a cap on the number of hours that we can volunteer . . . It’s encouraged to take on matters in areas that you’re interested in.”

For six years, Allen has been an active volunteer with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, where she represents clients in a variety of matters, including public benefits. “It’s a very rewarding experience to see that I have a unique skill set that’s helpful to a lot of people. It’s important for me to be able to use those skills to help others in need, especially in Washington, D.C., where there’s quite a bit of need,” she said.

In his opening remarks, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit Chief Judge Merrick Garland spoke about the high concentration of lawyers in the District and the number of individuals who cannot afford legal counsel. “There are almost 65,000 active members of the D.C. Bar who live in the metropolitan area. That’s more than one lawyer for every two people who live at or below the federal poverty line. Our community also has an unusually large number of [big] firms with substantial financial resources,” Garland said. “We are in a position to ensure that access to justice for all of those who cannot afford counsel is a reality.”

Legal Help for Domestic Violence Survivors
In addition to honoring the work of pro bono attorneys in many areas, including divorce, child custody, bankruptcy, and health care, this year’s recognition ceremony paid special attention to the needs of domestic violence survivors. Judge Garland cited statistic from a recent D.C. Metropolitan Police Department report that, on average, police receive one domestic violence call every 15 minutes.

U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell also weighed in on the topic of domestic violence, mentioning the enactment of the Pro Bono Work to Empower and Represent Act last year. “The act calls upon chief judges in each judicial district across the country to lead public events to promote pro bono legal services as a critical way to empower survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking and to engage citizens in assisting those survivors,” Howell said. “This is one statutory requirement that I’m happy to check off.”

Howell also connected the dots between domestic violence and homelessness by quoting from a recent survey conducted by the Women’s Task Force of the District of Columbia Interagency Council on Homelessness. “Approximately one-third [of respondents] indicated that violence is the cause of their homelessness and housing instability. And more than half reported that during their period of housing insecurity, they experienced violence or threats to their safety,” Howell said. “These women identified legal services as one of their top 10 resources that they need to get by. They needed legal assistance in [finding] housing programs designed for women fleeing from domestic violence and . . . in asking for law enforcement for help.”

Eric Angel, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia and chair of the D.C. Circuit Standing Committee for Pro Bono Legal Services, told the story of a client who was physically assaulted by her partner while she was holding her infant child. The incident happened in a public place, and fortunately an off-duty police officer immediately got her to safety. “Fortunately, when she got to the courthouse, she was connected to a Legal Aid lawyer,” Angel said. The client eventually received legal help from one of the firms honored at this year’s ceremony.

District law firms and lawyers provide more than 44,000 hours of pro bono work through the Legal Aid Society, Angel said. “We are one of many great legal services organizations that [lawyers] can work with,” he said.

The 40 at 50 Judicial Pro Bono Recognition Breakfast, hosted by the D.C. Circuit Standing Committee for Pro Bono Legal Services, began in 2002 with seven law firm honorees. “Now, we’re up to 33 law firms, and a few more [firms] came very close,” Howell said. “Hopefully next year, we’ll have an even bigger crowd.”