Old crime, new model of activist pro bono (1/5/2009)

  • 1/5/2009
  • National Law Journal
Old crime, new model of activist pro bono

Emily Heller / Special to the National Law Journal
January 05, 2009

When lawyers volunteered at a Los Angeles legal services agency to help Holocaust survivors complete applications for a German reparations fund, it was a good deed.

But then the lawyers and the legal aid attorneys did something different. They created a national legal-assistance network that trained hundreds of volunteer attorneys to assist thousands of Holocaust survivors in 32 U.S. cities. Establishing the Holocaust Survivors Justice Network was not merely another good thing: It rewrote the pro bono playbook.

"To us, this is the new face of pro bono," said Esther F. Lardent, president of the Pro Bono Institute at Georgetown University Law Center. "It's pro bono moving to another level."

Pro bono work often is fragmented, isolated and random, and any efficiencies of scale are lost when the work is completed, Lardent said.

In creating the Holocaust Survivors Justice Network, lawyers and social service workers thought strategically about creating a "really good distribution" system of pro bono services, she said.

This new model shifts pro bono from retail to wholesale, she said. "It's the Wal-Mart of pro bono — in the best sense of the word."

The network was co-created by lawyers in the Los Angeles headquarters of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips and Bet Tzedek, an L.A. legal-aid organization whose long-running programs include services to Holocaust survivors.

In 2007, Germany created a reparations program to compensate the estimated 60,000 Holocaust survivors who performed so-called ghetto work — under threat of force or starvation. Working under Nazi control was "a matter of survival," said Elissa Barrett, Bet Tzedek's pro bono director.

Beneficiaries of this program, which pays about $2,800, are elderly, and many are poor and face language barriers.

Language is not the only issue. The application is complicated and contains trick questions about the type of "work" performed, said Stan Levy, Manatt senior attorney and national volunteer director for the network.

After 20 Manatt lawyers worked on a team that helped a couple dozen Holocaust survivors in Los Angeles, the idea for the national network was hatched in an "ah-ha" moment, said the firm's pro bono director, Cristin Zeisler.

She and Barrett wondered whether lawyers in Manatt's New York office could reach out to survivors in that area. And couldn't the program expand nationwide to train lawyers wherever there were survivors?

From February through April, Levy worked nearly full time developing the network, setting aside his litigation and transactions practice while the firm continued to pay his salary.

The project required intensive training and coordination of lawyers who then created their own programs to contact and screen potential applicants and prepare applications. Local social service agencies hosted clinics to bring lawyers and clients together.

"There is no model for this," Levy said. "We created the model."

Insider knowledge

A key figure was Bet Tzedek staff attorney Volker Schmidt, whose experience as a clerk for the German Supreme Court and with the German government allowed him to work "very smoothly" with the German agency that administers the program, Barrett said.

DVDs were made of Schmidt's training sessions and tips. Preparations included sensitivity training to ensure that the lawyers knew how to respectfully inquire about Holocaust survivors' experiences.

Support materials included the correct spellings of the names of ghettos in German-controlled territories around the world, sample advertising to reach possible applicants and a cover letter to accompany applications.

The U.S. Holocaust Museum offered its database of 75,000 Holocaust survivors. City by city, lawyers sent mailings in batches of 3,000, screened potential applicants' return calls, scheduled appointments and met with applicants in clinics in their communities.

Law firms take turns in weekly shifts, responding to hotline calls and screening applicants. Most of the programs run independently in each city, with coordinating firms setting up clinics and enlisting volunteers.

The national rollout took place during the summer. Nearly 100 law firms and corporate law departments have joined so far. "It grew faster and beyond our wildest imaginations," Barrett said. "Once we began to talk to people about the program, the interest was overwhelming."

In the New York City area alone — home to an estimated 30,000 possible applicants — nearly 40 firms are involved, said Jerri Shick, a white-collar criminal defender at O'Melveny & Myers and pro bono coordinator in the New York office.

The New York clinics, which started in late summer, are going at full steam in multiple community locations — three in Brooklyn alone, said Shick, who supervises the clinics' operation. One of the bigger challenges is making sure there are enough clinics in areas where demand is greatest, she said. "That's a constantly moving target," she said.

Enthusiasm among volunteers is high and many who work at the clinics sign up for multiple turns. "Every week I hear stories that will just bring you to tears," Shick said.

Firms are also developing — and sharing — operational tools to facilitate claims processing. For example, O'Melveny prepared a PowerPoint document to assist call screeners. DLA Piper set up a live teleconference in 35 locations to train 80 lawyers. Howrey created an Internet site allowing lawyers in Washington and New York to share documents, maintain clinic calendars and catalog some client data. New York-based Weil, Gotshal & Manges coordinated the outreach to possible applicants in the New York area, figuring out how to manage the size and timing of the mailings to match available volunteer resources. Lawyers made house calls to homebound applicants.

Not just firms are involved. In Hartford, Conn., Aetna Inc.'s corporate law department is running the program and has extended its reach to include Bridgeport, Conn., Barrett said.

Lawyers share ideas for improvements with Zeisler and Barrett, who maintain a national coordinating role. Those ideas go back out over the network as "best practice" tips for consideration, said Zeisler. There have been some challenges, such as keeping the materials out of the hands of unethical lawyers who would keep a portion of any reparations as a fee.

Programs are running in 23 states and the District of Columbia. Some — such as those in Atlanta and Seattle — are just beginning, Barrett said. Germany has received 39,000 applications so far. There is time pressure: Applications must be filed while the survivor is still alive, although Germany has not set a fixed time for the program to run.

The network could expand internationally, said Barrett, noting that DLA Piper is working with its affiliate in Australia to develop a program there.

Network and other pro bono leaders are beginning to explore how the model could be applied to Social Security benefits, disaster relief or veterans' services.

"To me, this is really about making sure those pro bono hours are used in the best possible way," said Lardent.


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