Making an Impact Through Pro Bono at Milbank

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Here five Milbank lawyers discuss how their pro bono work has addressed social issues raised by the pandemic, race-based policing and immigration laws.

Chambers Associate: What role does pro bono play at Milbank?

Anthony Perez Cassino: It’s deeply embedded into the firm’s history and culture. Milbank has one of the most established pro bono programs among major law firms in the United States. We were the first major law firm to appoint a partner to run a pro bono program back in 1993. We were also an original signatory to the American Bar Association’s challenge that law firms devote an equivalent of either 3 or 5 percent of their total billable hours annually to pro bono or an average of 60 to 100 hours per attorney. We’ve exceeded that over the last fifteen years.

All our first-year associates must complete 25 hours of pro bono work, and we don’t prorate it, so it doesn’t matter when they join. We expect them to fulfill that requirement. And we expect our summer associates to work on pro bono matters. It’s just part of the culture here. And it starts at the top. Our partners, including our chairman, are deeply involved in pro bono matters – something you don’t see at many major law firms.

Public service also runs deep in our firm. Our lawyers have played roles in establishing organizations like the Legal Services Corporation and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.And our prior chairman and current chairman have served on the board of the Legal Aid Society.

“It’s just part of the culture here. And it starts at the top. Our partners, including our chairman, are deeply involved in pro bono matters.”

So, we’ve been thinking about how best to use our pro bono resources for a long time. We’ve also been thinking about how to make an impact through our work for a long time.  

CA: How did Milbank respond to the global pandemic through its pro bono work?

AC: By being nimble and flexible. The pandemic created unprecedented challenges. So, like many firms, we had to figure out how we could help people individually, like applying for benefits or solving tax-related issues. We also worked with a lot of small businesses and not-for-profits that were hurting. We did everything from advising on leases, contracts, and employment issues.

The firm’s enthusiasm to help was evident by the data. Last year, our lawyers logged over 72,000 hours and averaged 92 hours of work per lawyer with a 96 percent participation rate. Those are some of our best numbers ever.

CA: Which approaches proved to be most effective and why?

Grant Mainland: Bringing litigation is often unavoidable in achieving the results we want. For example, it proved effective in helping us secure a court-ordered settlement with New York City requiring it to provide wireless internet access for students residing in homeless shelters.

We were brought in by Legal Aid, who had been trying for some time to get the city to resolve the connectivity issues in shelters so that kids could connect to the virtual classroom. The matter started with just me and a third-year associate writing a letter.

But it quickly became clear that letter-writing wasn’t going to be sufficient. So we crafted our legal theories, drafted a complaint, and pulled together a preliminary injunction motion so that we could get attention from the court quickly.

“We were brought in by Legal Aid, who had been trying for some time to get the city to resolve the connectivity issues in shelters so that kids could connect to the virtual classroom.”  

Before we knew it, the whole thing ramped up into a very all-consuming and expedited matter. It started moving so fast that a two-person team turned into a seven-person team, ranging from a partner and senior associate to an associate who had only been with us for a month or so.

As we applied more pressure, the city tried to effectively render the issue moot by doing what we were asking the judge to order them to do. So as we were approaching a crucial hearing, they had mostly done what we had wanted.

Would the city have acted if we hadn't brought the lawsuit?  It’s unclear, but I’m certain that the problem wouldn’t have been resolved anywhere close to as fast as it was if we hadn’t litigated.

Alex Romain: We also effectively leveraged public relations. Last year, for example, we represented two nonprofits, the Alliance for Children’s Rights and the Learning Rights Law Center. Our case sought to ensure that students in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) who were experiencing severe learning loss during the pandemic—many of whom had special needs—received in-person educational services to the greatest extent allowed by the Department of Public Health.

The case began with a demand letter to the LAUSD and the California Board of Education, which was joined by 29 co-signatories, requesting detailed information on its latest plans for these students. Because we knew that change would not come without public pressure, we developed a PR campaign, which led to a lot of publicity for our case, raising the stakes and the public’s awareness of our cause.

CA: What institutional support from the firm did you have?

GM: At the outset of the case, one of the most senior partners at the firm sent me an email at 11 pm saying, ‘I was just watching the local news and saw a screenshot of a letter signed by you on Milbank letterhead demanding the city install Wi-Fi. Great work. Go get ‘em.’

It’s not just that the leaders of our firm say the right thing about pro bono. They sincerely believe in it and want to see us make an impact.

The firm’s support is tangible and crucial to our success. In February of this year, I devoted nearly all my time to this pro bono case, which is unusual for a partner. But I felt very responsible for it and committed to achieving the right result.

“Because we knew that change would not come without public pressure, we developed a PR campaign, which led to a lot of publicity for our case, raising the stakes and the public’s awareness of our cause.”

Ultimately, we fielded a significant team. We would have hearings before the judge or the magistrate judge in a discovery conference where there would be several of us on our side and only two or three city attorneys on the other side. It was a little lopsided but conveying that commitment and strength and resources let them know we were not letting this go away.

AR:  I sit on the board of directors for the Alliance for Children’s Rights, where I first heard about the challenges facing foster children and many other children who have disabilities and special needs. When I brought the potential matter to the firm, I thought it would last a month, but it ultimately consumed six months. We coordinated with other public service organizations and filed a petition for writ of certiorari in the Supreme Court of California, which then requested additional briefing. At every turn, the firm’s commitment was unwavering. No one ever said, ‘This is taking too many people and too much time.’

CA: Personally, what did these cases mean to you?

GM: It felt like we were all suffering through the pandemic in various ways. But just to hear that there are kids in shelters who couldn’t meaningfully connect to school underscored we’re not suffering to the same degree and in the same ways. And a lot of people are bearing the brunt to a much greater degree than others.

“…just to hear that there are kids in shelters who couldn’t meaningfully connect to school underscored we’re not suffering to the same degree and in the same ways.”

I have small kids at home, and my son was in kindergarten when the pandemic hit. He attended school virtually for the last couple of months of his kindergarten year. He has all the support in the world compared to kids living in shelters. And yet, I saw how difficult the pandemic was for small children. So when I pictured a kid in a shelter who needed to go to school virtually, and tech issues prevented that from even happening, it seemed profoundly wrong. I wanted to do something about it.

AR: It was inspiring to be part of such a talented and committed team and feel so supported within the firm. From my initial conversation about the case with Tony Cassino, the firm’s instinct was always to find a way to make it happen. It seems clear to me that Milbank has a deeply ingrained desire to make an impact with its pro bono work. The case was also a great opportunity for Milbank to participate with the legal and public interest communities in Los Angeles on behalf of these young people and for this important cause.

CA: Can you tell us about Milbank’s work to fight against race-based policing and systemic discrimination?

Kingdar Prussien: We are working on a series of matters with the New York Civil Liberties Union concerning the production of police disciplinary records. In the wake of racial unrest last summer following the murder of George Floyd, we wanted to get involved and make an impact.

At the time, there were protests in the state of New York around a law that historically had been used to shield police disciplinary records from the public, commonly known as Section 50-a of the Civil Rights Law. And on June 12th, 2020, the law was repealed.

“Last year, I logged over 800 hours of pro bono work. No one at any point suggested I’m doing too much or to cut back.”

Since then, we’ve been able to put out Freedom of Information Law requests similar to the Freedom of Information Act requests that many people may have heard of, and we’ve also followed up with police departments to compel productions. Many junior lawyers, who were just three or four months into their legal career, had the opportunity to draft these meaningful documents and get substantive experience. So the benefits of this work have been internal and external.

CA: What has the experience been like for you?

KP: I’m the lead associate on that matter, so it’s a good amount of professional responsibility, which has been rewarding. I’ve also found the experience to be meaningful personally. Last year, I logged over 800 hours of pro bono work. No one at any point suggested I’m doing too much or to cut back. It’s truly special to have that kind of support.

Candidly, as a Black man working at this big law firm, I was encouraged to see how quickly the firm reacted and showed that it wanted to do something meaningful and helpful. I remember having conversations with senior leaders of the firm last summer who were asking ‘What can we do?’  The fact that people are asking what they can do is reassuring. It shows what a proactive and thoughtful culture we have here.

“That issue…is crucial to the fight we’re waging right now on police transparency issues.”

There’s a difference between being smart and being thoughtful. We’re fortunate enough to have leadership that's both.

CA: 2020 brought the question of police conduct and brutality into sharp focus and with more public scrutiny and outrage than ever before. How did Milbank engage with this issue at the time and use its legal expertise to help?

Atara Miller: Well, first off, Milbank’s commitment to racial and social justice long predates this past summer. When I was a junior associate, we worked on a case addressing the abuse of women in prisons, which, as we all know, disproportionately impacts Black women. We made some good precedent in our case, which was among the first to find New York liable on summary judgment based on the number of unsubstantiated allegations made against a prison corrections officer.

That issue—whether unsubstantiated complaints should be produced and subject to public review and scrutiny—is crucial to the fight we’re waging right now on police transparency issues that Kingdar referenced.

Our involvement in police accountability stems from several years ago when we became involved in litigation that Latino Justice spearheaded against the Suffolk County Police Department over systemic racial discrimination and harassment against Latinos. As the events of last summer started unfolding, our chairman called me and said, ‘Why can't we bring the same complaint and start getting information about what's going on in other police departments in New York?’

“…the exception to the law that protects all sorts of law enforcement documents from production leaves a lot to be litigated.”

So I ended up putting together a team to start looking at the issues. Which police departments in New York had already been subject to litigation? What could we find out?

The repeal of 50-a in New York swung the door wide open for a systemic and strategic approach. But the exception to the law that protects all sorts of law enforcement documents from production leaves a lot to be litigated. So we ended up working with our pro bono director to find organizations we could work with.

CA: How are these matters proceeding?

AM: Right now, we’re pursuing information from Nassau County, including two of its townships. And the common theme is unsubstantiated complaints. Generally, there’s a lot of discomfort right now within law enforcement to the retroactive opening of records. And so defendants have taken an approach that says, ‘We're going to push back and let the courts figure out what the limits are.’ Ultimately, I think they’ll comply with our requests, but right now, there is strong resistance.

CA: Do you think this stream of litigation will continue for the foreseeable future?

AM: I do. This idea that there needs to be more transparency in police departments won’t go away any time soon.

And Milbank will continue to be engaged on that issue. We’re always looking at how we can respond to crises or weaknesses we see in society. If we feel like we’re well-positioned to help—and we often are based on our long history and experience in many social justice-related cases—our instinct will always be, ‘How can we lend support to it?’

“This idea that there needs to be more transparency in police departments won’t go away any time soon.”

CA: Immigration is another key area where law firms can use their expertise to assist. Can you talk about your involvement?

Katherine Fell: Milbank has a long history of working on immigration issues. Many lawyers, including several partners, have deep expertise in the area. They also have long-standing relationships with the legal services community that works on these issues.

For the past two years, I’ve been working on a case representing immigrant juveniles in California who were denied Special Immigrant Juvenile status (SIJ) and were at risk of removal. Under established law, our clients were eligible for SIJ. They had endured abuse, neglect or abandonment and received a determination from a state court that reunification with their parents was not viable or in their best interest.

But in early 2018, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) began imposing a new requirement that state courts have the authority to return a child to the custody of their parents to find that reunification is not viable, a prerequisite to obtaining SIJ. The new policy was implemented without notice. Our case challenged that new requirement as unlawful, and last May, we obtained a preliminary injunction against the USCIS’s application of the reunification authority requirement for SIJ petitions.  The preliminary injunction also prevented removal of individuals whose SIJ petitions had been denied on reunification-authority grounds, and provided other relief for class members.

CA: What was your experience on the case like?

KF: For me, it was an amazing opportunity to be involved in all aspects of a case, including designing case strategy. I argued the preliminary injunction motion for what turned out to be a 75-minute contentious bench hearing.

“Immigration issues, particularly as they apply to children, are very close to my heart, so it was just an incredible professional moment to argue in such a high-stakes and meaningful court hearing.”

I felt completely supported and prepared. The two partners on the case helped prepare me and participated in moot arguments. Immigration issues, particularly as they apply to children, are very close to my heart, so it was just an incredible professional moment to argue in such a high-stakes and meaningful court hearing.

My experience underscored the vast resources that Milbank is willing to devote to these cases and the deep expertise it brings. I had unqualified support from the firm in delivering excellent advocacy on behalf of our clients.

When there are these moments of great need, like there were in the immigration space over the last four or five years, Millbank was ready to hit the ground running because of its long commitment to these issues. There were no startup costs; the firm was prepared to meet the moment.

 

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