The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, adopted in 1865 at the conclusion of the Civil War, abolished slavery across the United States with one notable exception. According to the amendment, “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction” (emphasis added). In other words, slavery and involuntary servitude remain constitutionally acceptable forms of punishment for individuals who are convicted of crimes. This loophole has a disturbing history of being used to target Black Americans in the aftermath of the Civil War, with local authorities imprisoning thousands of formerly enslaved people on faulty charges and exploiting their labor. In upholding the legality of forced prison labor, the Virginia Supreme Court even went so far as to describe a prisoner who challenged the practice as a “slave of the State.” Ruffin v. Commonwealth (1871).
William C. Silverman is a partner responsible for leading Proskauer’s global pro bono efforts, which provide assistance to individual clients and nonprofit organizations in litigation as well as transactional matters. He focuses on identifying and securing pro bono opportunities and partnerships for Proskauer lawyers and ensuring widespread participation in these projects.
Bill has robust private and public sector experience and a strong criminal and civil background. He has worked extensively on government investigations and white collar criminal matters, as well as complex civil litigation in federal and state courts. He also served as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, where he led criminal investigations, conducted trials and handled Second Circuit appeals.
Throughout his career, Bill has dedicated himself to the promotion of equal access to justice through pro bono service, particularly in the area of family court, anti-trafficking, and immigration.
Bill spearheaded a partnership among several law firms, corporations and the New York City Family Court to provide free legal advice to pro se litigants. The New York City Family Court Volunteer Attorney Program now has more than 400 volunteer attorneys from 40 major firms and corporations. Bill also helped build a coalition of organizations in a successful effort to secure additional Family Court judges in New York. He is now part of an effort spearheaded by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore to simplify the New York Court System from 11 trial courts to three.
Bill serves as counsel to the New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition. In that capacity he has been a strong advocate for changes in the law and public policy to protect victims of human trafficking and bring perpetrators to justice. He also represents individual clients in this area, including a successful federal lawsuit brought on behalf of a trafficking victim against her traffickers. For his work, he was named by domestic violence nonprofit Sanctuary For Families as one of “New York’s New Abolitionists.”
Bill has spoken at numerous conferences and events, including New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman’s Hearings on Civil Legal Services and the American Bar Association’s Equal Justice Conference. In 2014, he attended a meeting at the White House with Vice President Joe Biden and other policymakers on the need for access to legal services in immigration proceedings.
Bill has been recognized for his public service with the Abely Pro Bono Leadership Award from Sanctuary For Families and Columbia Law School (2019); the Special Leadership Award for All-Around Excellence in Corporate Social Responsibility & the Law from City & State Reports (2015); the Commitment to Justice Award for Outstanding Partner from inMotion (2008); and the Matthew G. Leonard Award for Outstanding Pro Bono Achievement from MFY Legal Services (2007).
Outside of his work at the firm, Bill serves on various committees and non-profit boards. Bill is currently chairman of the Fund for Modern Courts, a non-partisan citizen organization devoted to improving New York State courts, and is formerly chairman of Legal Information For Families Today (LIFT), an organization devoted to unrepresented litigants in Family Court.
Last week, Proskauer hosted a panel discussion focusing on the recent influx of migrants crossing the U.S. southern border and the urgent need for pro bono legal services. According to The New York Times, this past fiscal year nearly 2.5 million migrants crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, which is two and a half times greater than the number from four years ago. The large number of recent arrivals has overwhelmed an already strained system, as demonstrated by the current backlog of three million immigration cases — which has doubled since 2021 — pending before just 800 judges.
2023 is neither a presidential nor mid-term election year but nevertheless there are extensive efforts underway across the country to combat a host of recent measures meant to restrict the right to vote. The Bloomberg and Proskauer communities recently came together at Bloomberg’s headquarters in New York for a discussion highlighting those efforts, addressing the health of our democracy, and presenting a call to action for the hundreds who attended this lunchtime event.
Moderated by Bloomberg reporter Greg Farrell, the speakers included Casey Smith, an Equal Justice Works Fellow funded by Bloomberg and Proskauer who works for the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, and Godfre Blackman, a Proskauer associate who recently served as the firm’s NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) Fellow, which enabled him to work directly with the LDF on various voting rights issues.
Proskauer hosted actor and activist Ashley Judd and author and activist Ruchira Gupta for a discussion last week that addressed the issue of human trafficking.
I had the honor of introducing the conversation between Judd, well known for her global activism centered on gender equality, and Gupta, an Emmy Award-winning journalist who founded Apne Aap, a non-governmental organization in India that has helped thousands of women and girls exit prostitution.
Last week, Proskauer was honored to host a summit in its New York office, led by United States Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, on efforts to ensure public safety and economic opportunities for Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities. The event, moderated by Frank Wu, the president of Queens College, brought together over 50 business, academic and community leaders, including the presidents of the Ford Foundation, Fordham University, Teachers College (Columbia University), Baruch College and the Asian American Business Development Center. The discussion focused on ways to battle anti-Asian xenophobia and racism and offered ideas to build capacity and investment in AAPI communities through federal policies and action.
Proskauer performs pro bono work for a number of innovative and impactful nonprofit organizations, including Beyond Kids Reading (BKR). This week we had the privilege of speaking with BKR’s founder Dr. Craig N. Horning.
Last week, hundreds of lawyers and staff gathered across Proskauer for the 15th Annual Golden Gavel Awards ceremony to honor those who have made significant contributions to the Firm’s pro bono, corporate social responsibility and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion efforts this past year. The evening began with a special guest. Preet Bharara, the former United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, shared insights from his time in office, impressed the importance of public service, and addressed several issues he raised in his best-selling book Doing Justice: A Prosecutor’s Thoughts on Crime, Punishment, and The Rule of Law. Also of note were remarks from Labor & Employment associate Godfre Blackman who is currently serving as the Firm’s NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) Fellow. As part of the Firm’s Collaborate for Change initiative, Proskauer created this fellowship for one of our associates to work directly with the LDF on strategic matters focusing on eliminating disparities and achieving racial justice and equality.
Our story begins in or about 1875 when both Proskauer and Stillman College were founded. Fast forward almost 150 years when, this past summer, Stillman Professor Gordon Govens reached out to Proskauer. There have been graduates of Stillman, a small historically black college in Alabama, who have gone on to become lawyers but not until now had the school developed a formal prelaw program. Dr. Govens was formerly a practicing lawyer before his academic career and indeed, was an associate at Proskauer in the early 1990s. He thought that there might be a way for the two institutions to work together, and he was right.