The Proskauer corporate social responsibility and pro bono blog

The Importance of Assigning Pro Bono Matters to First-Year Associates

Of all the strategies we employ to increase pro bono engagement, there is one that – by any measure – rises above the rest.  Indeed, it is the only policy I can recall that prompts people to come by my office or, more recently, reach out to me over Zoom, just to say thanks.  In keeping with a longstanding Proskauer tradition, we have just assigned pro bono matters to all incoming first-year associates.

Thus far, 53 associates have been assigned to 80+ new and existing matters.  Cases include:

  • Immigration
  • Criminal record sealing
  • Transactional and employment assistance to low-income artists, small businesses, and nonprofit organizations
  • Representation of special needs children in mediation for disability-related services, accommodations, and school placement
  • Disability benefits and discharge upgrade representation for veterans
  • Impact litigation in the areas of racial/disability/environmental justice

Assigning pro bono matters to first-years as they start sends a strong message that pro bono work is important and valued by the firm.  It also helps develop good work habits since those who take on pro bono matters as first-years are more likely to do pro bono work throughout their careers.  Often it takes a little time for first-years to ramp up their billable work, meet new people, and become acclimated to the firm’s resources.  Through pro bono work, an associate can get experience working with colleagues, managing cases and helping clients in great need immediately.  In addition, this work is enormously popular among the first-years, and it has a positive effect on the firm as a whole: prioritizing public service fosters collegiality and strengthens the bonds we have with each other by providing a sense of common purpose.

Bethany Johnson, a Boston Corporate Associate, started at Proskauer in October and was immediately given two pro bono assignments: a research project on gun safety laws for a non-profit organization and a naturalization application for a client who fled to the United States several years ago out fear of persecution over his sexual orientation.  “My projects allowed me to get started on hands-on legal work immediately,” said Bethany. “This helped me connect with the firm outside of my department and also connected me to the ‘real world.’”

Like Bethany, Briana Seyarto Flores, a Litigation Associate in Los Angeles, appreciates the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives.  She joined Proskauer with an interest in immigration work which she was able to pursue beginning with her first week.  Since then she has worked on a voting rights case as well as a matter on behalf of a disabled veteran.  In discussing these matters, she emphasized the “opportunity to serve others and engage in deeply fulfilling work.”  She also said, “It has provided me opportunities to meet more people, familiarize myself with firm resources, and refine my research and writing skills.”

For Jason Finger, a New York Corporate Associate, pro bono work can be “addictive.  It’s no secret that law school gives you a limited view, and we are increasingly specialized into practice silos, which can make it difficult to see the breadth of impact we can have.”  Jason noted the variety of pro bono matters he is working on, which include an asylum case and the review of an agreement for a small museum. He also observed, “I have already experienced four different areas of law. It is important to assign first-years a pro bono matter because once the pro bono ball gets moving it’s difficult to stop.”

Spotlight on Equal Justice Works Fellow Rita Gilles

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Rita Gilles, an Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by Bloomberg and Proskauer, has observed firsthand the heroic dedication and sacrifice of frontline workers, especially the health care staff at Mount Sinai Health System who are now dealing with another challenging winter. For those in or near poverty the pandemic has been particularly cruel, not only directly affecting the health of thousands but also undermining various social determinants of health, including income, housing, education, employment, and family stability.  Rita has helped tackle these challenges for patients at Mount Sinai. A year out of Yale Law School, Rita works at the Mount Sinai Medical Legal Partnership (MSMLP) under the supervision of the LegalHealth division of New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) serving low-income families of children and adolescent patients at Mount Sinai. Now that Rita is halfway through her two-year fellowship, we checked in for an update.

Over the past year, Rita has seen growing demand for legal services. While the economy is now strong, the recovery has been uneven with a growing number of lower income individuals facing unemployment and food insecurity. Currently, Rita is handling about 50 matters on a variety of subjects including housing, immigration, education, disability benefits, and family law. Her clients are referred to her by staff at the hospital trained to identify legal issues that have a nexus to healthcare. For example, living with mold in one’s apartment can have serious health implications but is also a potentially addressable legal issue. Another prime example — securing disability benefits — is an area where Bloomberg and Proskauer lawyers have assisted Rita through pro bono work. We have seen for ourselves that securing this additional income often has a profound impact on the health and safety of an entire family.

In addition to believing strongly in medical-legal partnerships as a vitally important part of a holistic approach to health care, Rita is a strong advocate for the power of Equal Justice Works. There are far too few entry-level job opportunities for recent law school graduates pursuing careers in public service. Rita was able to design her own fellowship and then receive not only funding but also the active engagement of her funders. Rita believes that an EJW fellowship, especially now, is an important and impactful public service model that every firm should consider pursuing.

Asylum Victory for Gay HIV+ Immigrant from Uzbekistan

Nearly six years after our pro bono client first filed his asylum application, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) finally granted him asylum in the United States. Our client is a gay man living with HIV who fled Uzbekistan because he had suffered anti-gay violence and feared he would be harmed again due to his sexual orientation and HIV status. The client had lived in a patriarchal society in Uzbekistan where gay men are routinely ostracized and attacked because they do not conform to traditional gender norms. Instead of being able to live freely as his authentic self, our client was forced to hide his gay identity in a futile attempt to avoid abuse and violence. Despite his efforts to closet himself, our client was ultimately assaulted by homophobic men, but he could not report the attack to the police, receive treatment for his wounds at a hospital, or even tell his family about the attack because he knew that doing so could expose him to additional abuse and potentially cause his family to be ostracized as well.

In Uzbekistan, being gay is a crime punishable by up to three years of imprisonment. Homophobic people believe it is acceptable to be cruel and violent toward gay men, and the police do not protect gay men from this harm – they either join the attacks or protect the perpetrators. In fact, it is not uncommon for the Uzbek police to extract bribes from men they suspect of being gay in exchange for silence. In addition, it is very difficult for gay men in Uzbekistan to access HIV treatment safely. Because many people in Uzbekistan assume based on stereotypes that men living with HIV must be gay, it is not safe for gay men to be seen trying to obtain HIV medication. Indeed, hospital officials in Uzbekistan reportedly sometimes mark HIV patient files as “homosexual” and refer them to the police for investigation because consensual same-sex sexual conduct between men is a crime.

In the United States, individuals “who have been persecuted or fear they will be persecuted on account of race, religion, nationality, and/or membership in a particular social group or political opinion” may apply for asylum. However, this process is time-consuming and not at all straightforward. Moreover, the bar to win an asylum claim is high. As was the case with our client, the entire process can take many years. Our client had filed his initial asylum application form in early 2016 but needed assistance with preparing his supporting evidence. Immigration Equality referred the client to Proskauer in 2018. The Proskauer team spent many months interviewing the client; gathering documentary evidence in support of the asylum application; drafting an affidavit from the client detailing his life story and his fear of persecution if forced to return to Uzbekistan; securing supporting affidavits from the client’s friends; and obtaining an expert affidavit from a psychiatrist who specializes in working with the LGBTQ+ immigrant community. We also prepared a country conditions report containing several hundred pages documenting the persecution against gay, HIV-positive men in Uzbekistan. Finally, we prepared a detailed letter brief in support of the asylum application in which we requested short-listing of our client’s asylum case to expedite the scheduling of his asylum interview.

Just days after we had submitted this voluminous supporting evidence to the asylum office in February 2020, the unforeseen COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting shutdowns were upon us, and stalled government operations for over a year. When we got word in August 2021 that the asylum office had scheduled our client for an interview, we had less than four business days to update his application materials and prepare him for the interview. Many hours were dedicated to that effort and to keep our client calm and confident during the process.

Of course, our client and all of us at Proskauer whose lives he touched were thrilled when we received word just a little over a month later that USCIS had, at long last, granted the asylum application.

These pro bono efforts were led by the Chair of the Environmental Practice Group Gail S. Port, with assistance from Pro Bono Counsel Erin M. Meyer and associate Yena Hong. The team at various points throughout the process also included significant efforts from former Proskauer attorneys Audrey Bender and Evan Zepfel, and former paralegals Alexandria Bell and Julia Sutherland. The grant of asylum for this client was a huge win for all involved, and we are grateful to have had the opportunity to have worked on this important matter.

Charting a Path Forward with Valerie Jarrett

Chief among the characteristics of highly successful people are a fierce work ethic and the ability to make success look easy. A good example is Valerie Jarrett, Chief Executive Officer of the Barack Obama Foundation, who spoke at Proskauer virtually last week as part of the firm’s A Path Forward lecture series and Collaborate for Change program. The presentation was moderated by Daryn Grossman, Proskauer’s Managing Partner, and interspersed with personal stories from members of the Proskauer community.

Jarrett discussed her background, including the influence of her parents who told her if she set goals and worked hard, she could accomplish anything. Ironically, it was when Jarrett actually reached the pinnacle of success, as the longest-serving Senior Advisor in White House history, that her parents acknowledged that at the time they told her those encouraging words, they did not in fact believe them in light of their own experience. Indeed, Jarrett’s father, an accomplished physician, took a job overseas before she was born because of the discrimination he faced as a Black doctor in the United States.

Jarrett emphasized the importance for all of us to engage in difficult conversations about race, explaining that you, “can’t ignore the past if you expect to have a path forward.” The murder of George Floyd shocked the nation but, in reality, there was nothing new about what occurred in the gruesome video that simply laid bare the longstanding racial injustice in this country.  According to Jarrett, the question remains whether we will “rise to the moment” and recognize that although we have made substantial progress on racial and social justice, we still have a long way to go.

Those words resonate deeply as they relate to pro bono. Indeed, almost all of our pro bono work advances racial justice because of how deeply entrenched racial disparities remain in American institutions and society. We see this in education, housing, incarceration rates, and the wealth gap. We see this in our system of justice, where throughout the country certain courts like the family, housing, and criminal courts, which disproportionately serve people of color, are disproportionately under-resourced. And we see this in voting rights where throughout our history, up to and including the present day, there have been efforts to exclude people of color from exercising their most fundamental right in a democracy.

In sum, Jarrett reinforced the necessity to not only engage in discussion but to take action. This means fostering inclusive and diverse workplaces and no longer tolerating a two-tiered society or a second class system of justice for anyone.

Protecting Due Process: Proskauer Files Amicus Brief on Behalf of Mother Seeking to Protect Her Child

Domestic violence survivors and their children who flee a perpetrator to a foreign country often face a unique legal challenge:  a petition to return the children to the country they fled, and back into the perpetrator’s control, under the Hague Convention on Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.  The Hague Convention provides a cause of action for a parent to petition for the return of “abducted” children to a foreign country, if the children were habitually resident in the foreign country and removal from it allegedly interferes with the petitioner’s custodial rights.  Jewel Lazaro faced precisely that scenario:  fleeing with her child from domestic violence in Spain, she returned to the United States only to face her husband’s lawsuit in Seattle, Washington federal court seeking her child’s return to Spain.

Ms. Lazaro sought to assert a critical defense—namely, that her husband’s domestic violence created a grave risk of harm to her child, justifying her child’s removal to the United States.  When she sought to establish how her husband’s domestic violence created a grave risk of harm to her child, the trial court denied her request. Instead of allowing her to provide expert psychological testimony common in Hague Convention cases, the trial court only permitted testimony from an overseas psychologist who evaluated the child for a different purpose over a year earlier.  The trial court then summarily rejected the only testimony it permitted Ms. Lazaro to provide, found she had not established her child faced a grave risk of harm, and granted her husband’s request to return the child to Spain.  Ms. Lazaro appealed, arguing the trial court abused its discretion by denying her the opportunity to present expert discovery.

Proskauer filed an amicus brief in support of Ms. Lazaro on behalf of Sanctuary for Families, Legal Momentum, the Women’s Legal Defense and Education Fund, Family Violence Appellate Project, Joan S. Meier, Lawyers Committee Against Domestic Violence, Legal Voice, Merle H. Weiner, Sexual Violence Law Center, and the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The amici argued expert testimony is critical in evaluating a grave risk defense in Hague Convention cases, denying such testimony is tantamount to a denial of due process, and that the trial court improperly used Ms. Lazaro’s efforts to seek safety in the United States against her.

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit vacated the trial court’s decision, citing Proskauer’s amicus brief with approval, and drawing a clear line in support of survivors of domestic violence and their children, stating, “courts should not allow haste to overwhelm a respondent’s right to develop the psychological evidence needed to make out a viable Article 13(b) defense where she has alleged with considerable particularity that the petitioner has engaged in domestic violence.”  On remand, Ms. Lazaro will be able to proffer expert testimony to help establish the grave risk of harm her child faces should the child be returned to Spain.  In particular, the Ninth Circuit ordered the trial court to appoint a forensic psychologist to examine the child.

The Proskauer team included Margaret Dale, William Dalsen, Lucy Wolf, and Nicole Sockett.

Demanding More for Our Disabled Veterans

The New York City Bar Justice Center’s Veterans Assistance Project recently presented William Fassuliotis with their 2021 Outstanding Pro Bono Service Award. In this post, Will explains how difficult the disability claims process has become for veterans.

A recent statement by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced that it is hiring 2,000 new employees to help with processing disability claims, which is welcome news given that the current backlog of claims pending for more than 125 days now exceeds 200,000 cases. In the past year, I have worked with three different veterans across various stages of the claims process, including submitting the initial claim, higher-level reviews, and appeals to the Board of Veterans Appeals. While it has truly been rewarding work on a personal and professional level, the claims process has been, to say the least, a source of great frustration. Especially as Veterans Day approaches, Americans should demand more for our disabled veterans. The claims process is slow, cumbersome, and prone to errors. Here are just a few examples:

  • Once a claim for disability benefits is first submitted to the VA, it can take anywhere from a few months to a year or more for a decision. Too often the wait is intolerable, especially for those veterans whose service-related injuries prevent them from working, forcing them to rely on benefits as their last line of defense against poverty, hunger, and homelessness. Making matters worse, we sometimes learn of a decision only after contacting the VA. Informing veterans of decisions in a timely fashion is more than a courtesy because it can have ramifications on taking an appeal.
  • It is often difficult for veterans to get information about their cases through the VA Hotline. Before speaking with a person, one has to navigate a labyrinthine call center. It begins with waiting through minutes of disclaimers and announcements. Eventually, it will prompt you to dial one for “this”, two for “that”, and so forth. If you are too slow with the information or misdial a number, the call will disconnect and force you to start over. That being said, once you reach an actual human, I have found the call center is filled with wonderful and compassionate people who do the best they can to help.
  • Too often the first disability decision is simply wrong. We have seen claims denied because of the purported lack of a certain type of evidence when the evidence was in fact clearly included in our initial submission. The high success rate for veterans pursuing an appeal strongly indicates that not enough care by the VA is devoted to the initial application for benefits. That is of great significance because, to the extent a veteran appeals a decision, this added step only compounds the delay.

The claims process is supposed to be non-adversarial, but too often that concept is lost in the slow and difficult system disabled veterans have to endure to receive the benefits they are entitled to under the law. Individuals who have sacrificed so much to serve all of us deserve a better system.

Proskauer Achieves Landmark Special Education Settlement in New Jersey State Prisons

Proskauer recently reached a landmark agreement with the New Jersey Department of Corrections (NJDOC) and Department of Education (NJDOE) to ensure that students entitled to special education services in NJDOC custody will receive those services to which they are legally entitled under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This settlement is consistent with Proskauer’s long-standing commitment to provide legal services to some of the country’s most vulnerable communities. Continue Reading

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