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 lawyers 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. 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.
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. I devoted a great deal of 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.
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.
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.
Allison Markowitz, associate: We are currently working with the Legal Aid Society and Brooklyn Defender Services to represent people in the custody of the New York City Department of Correction in a class action arising from the Department’s denial of access to medical care. The Department has consistently failed to bring people in custody to medical appointments and to safely keep those in its custody, in violation of its obligations under New York law. Milbank decided to bring an Article 78 mandamus to compel the Department to comply with its nondiscretionary duty to provide access to medical care. To date, Milbank has obtained a court-ordered mandamus and held the Department in contempt for failing to comply with that order. Following months of continued noncompliance, Milbank has filed a second motion for contempt, which is currently pending in New York Supreme Court.
I am honored to be the lead associate on this matter and proud that this is the type of case that the firm will take on and devote resources to. What we are seeing is an urgent crisis in the New York City jails. Just one of the many issues, albeit a serious one, is the fact that the Department fails to afford people in its custody access to the most basic components of the correctional medical system, including sick call and escorts to medical clinics. How a society treats its most vulnerable—which includes those who are incarcerated—is the measure of its humanity. It is critical that the Department immediately address and remedy the systemic operational issues that have led to widespread suffering in its jails, which are of the Department’s own making. As a born and raised New Yorker I am passionate about fighting to see this city rise to the occasion.
CA: The question of police conduct and brutality has come into sharp focus and with more public scrutiny and outrage than ever before. How does Milbank engage with this issue 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.
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.
During the Trump Administration, immigration law and reform was a particularly hot topic and there were a number of high-profile disputes arising out of the administration’s changes to policies and procedures. I was involved in a case that was recently settled where we represented 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.
In 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 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. During the pendency of the preliminary injunction, we successfully settled the case, obtaining, among other relief, an agreement that USCIS will never reimpose the unlawful interpretation. That settlement was approved by the court in November 2021.
CA: What was your experience on the case like?
KF: I worked on this matter as a senior associate, before being elevated to partner, and it was an amazing opportunity for me for a number of reasons. I was able to be involved in all aspects of a case, including designing case strategy, which gave me some insight into what my responsibilities would be if I was promoted. I argued the preliminary injunction motion for what turned out to be a 75-minute contentious bench hearing, which was an incredibly formative and motivating experience, and one that I wouldn’t necessarily have had in my other matters. I was happy to confirm through that experience that I really love being on my feet in court in that capacity and thrive in those high-pressure situations, and it provided a platform for the firm to observe that I was capable of handling the role.
“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.”
Immigration issues, particularly as they apply to children, are very close to my heart. I am a mother of two young children, and I also grew up in New Mexico—a border state that is deeply affected by immigration. I felt a responsibility to lift up the voices of these vulnerable young people who were simply trying to make a life for themselves in what is, for many of them, the only country they have ever known. It was just an incredible professional moment to argue in such a high-stakes and meaningful court hearing and to secure a victory that provided direct protection to these innocent kids.
I felt completely supported throughout the matter. The two partners on the case helped prepare me and participated in moot arguments. I was trusted to be the primary negotiator of the settlement agreement, engaging in dozens of settlement negotiations with counsel for the government and a magistrate judge assigned to oversee the process. The firm’s unwavering support of and trust in me gave me the confidence to assume the primary role in the case, backed by the substantive and technical expertise of all the amazing lawyers at the firm.
I am also so grateful that, when there are these moments of great need, like there were in the immigration space over the past several years, Millbank is always ready to hit the ground running because of its long commitment to these issues. Milbank’s core values include a commitment to justice and service, so when there is a need for representation in these areas, there are no startup costs; the firm is prepared to meet the moment.