The Benefits Of A Coordinated And Focused Pro Bono Program

Dana Ferestien, Williams Kastner

The Metropolitan Coporate Counsel
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Aug 5 2009

Dana Ferestien is a Member in the Seattle office of Williams
Kastner and a part of the firm’s business litigation practice
group and insurance team. A trial lawyer and counselor, Mr
Ferestien focuses on insurance coverage and complex business
litigation. He frequently writes about developments in insurance law

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Most law firms and legal departments support pro bono work in some
way. Williams Kastner has long encouraged and supported pro bono
work. Historically, our attorneys have each pursued projects and
causes of their own choosing. A few years ago, however, our firm
made a decision to focus our collective pro bono efforts by forming a
strategic relationship with the Northwest Immigrants Rights Project
(), a non-profit organization devoted to helping low
income immigrants and refugees. This decision has led to a much
more effective pro bono program-one with greater impact and rewards
for Williams Kastner, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and
its clients.

The NWIRP refers clients to Williams Kastner for assistance with either
an affirmative asylum application or defensive removal proceedings
initiated by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service
(USCIS). Over the past 36 months, our attorneys have helped immigrants
from all over the world to obtain asylum. The clients referred to us
by NWIRP have included people from Haiti, Kenya, Burma, Azerbaijan,
Eritrea, Afghanistan, Gambia, Venezuela and Ethiopia. Many of these
immigrants fled their countries after having been kidnapped, tortured
and in some cases imprisoned as a result of their political beliefs
and their efforts to effect peaceful change in their countries.

Our clients’ stories are difficult for most Americans to comphrehend or
imagine. One vivid example is a Haitian client who was kidnapped after
he spoke out on the radio against the government. His kidnappers beat
him with a baseball bat. He was released only after his family paid a
large ransom, and then he needed emergency surgery to repair a rupture
in his stomach wall caused by the repeated severe beatings. Atrocities
such as these are fairly common among the immigrants who come to the
NWIRP seeking relief and a road to a safe harbor.

Many of the women from Africa who come to the NWIRP for assistance
were subjected by their own families to genital mutilation and forced
plural marriage. One young woman from Gambia fled to the United States
at the age of 20 because she had been repeatedly whipped and beaten by
her father, uncles and cousins for her refusal to become the third wife
of a 70-year-old man. Her father had arranged for the plural marriage
and insisted that she marry this man even though she loved a young man
whom she had met on her own. Our clients are victims of societies where
the fundamental concepts of freedom and human rights do not apply.

Another NWIRP client our lawyers worked with and were able to help
is from Azerbaijan – he had repeatedly suffered ethnically motivated
attacks due to his Armenian ancestry. Our client fled Azerbaijan
in the late 1980s when the Soviet Union came apart and the ethnic
Azerbaijanis sought to wipe out the large ethnic Armenian population
in Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan. He initially moved to the
Ukraine, but he did not find any better conditions; he and his family
were repeatedly attacked by Neo-Nazis.

All of these people came to the United States in search of safety,
dignity and peace. Representing them for no fee is the right thing
to do for the simple reason that it allows Williams Kastner and our
attorneys to contribute to our community and to be personally rewarded
by helping those in genuine desperate need to start a better life. Our
lawyers utilize considerable legal and litigation skills to make
an enormous difference in the lives of these people. I will always
remember a client suddenly hugging me at the end of his hearing, when
the immigration judge told him that he was granting asylum. With tears
in his eyes, the client told me, "Thank you! You have saved my life."

Many of the associates from Williams Kastner who have invested their
time and skills in the NWIRP pro bono project have similar stories to
share about the successes achieved on behalf of their clients. The very
tangible results of our work with these clients make us all very proud
to be attorneys and members of a firm such as Williams Kastner. This is
particularly important at a time when many law firms around the United
States are struggling to attract and retain talented, qualified and
diverse associates. Interesting and challenging pro bono work like
this can be one of the non-economic factors critical to attorneys
looking for an organization to join. The personal fulfillment and
professional growth associates gain through a firm’s commitment to
community service in pro bono projects is incomparable.

Williams Kastner’s work with the NWIRP has been beneficial in many
other ways in large part because the firms has supported it through
a collective effort that has involved everyone from the firm’s most
senior members (partners) to its youngest and newest attorneys. Earlier
this year, a 35-year member of the firm took on his first NWIRP
client. The senior member worked with his daughter who had just
graduated from law school to represent, and obtain asylum for, an
Ethiopian man who had been jailed for his activities as a political
organizer. While this senior member has done other pro bono work in
the past, it was our established program with the NWIRP that created
this rewarding and interesting opportunity.

Many of Williams Kastner’s first- and second-year associates, as
well as our summer associates, have teamed up with members and senior
associates to represent our NWIRP clients. We have purposefully staffed
files this way to promote mentoring and collegiality, and to allow
newer attorneys to develop their client relations, file management
and oral advocacy skills with guidance and input from more experienced
attorneys. It has also ensured that young attorneys become active in
pro bono work early in their careers.

Asylum clients often present significant challenges in our work due
to language and cultural barriers and challenges – English is rarely
a primary language and much of our work is aided by translators. In
addition, these clients have endured hardships rarely, if ever,
encountered in the United States. By learning to manage these client
relationships, our young attorneys are "ahead of the curve" on key
practice and client relationship skills. Similarly, these engagements
have allowed our newest attorneys to conduct trials in their first year
of practice. In most law firm settings, this would not be possible
because most clients require that more senior attorneys conduct any
trials and hearings on their behalf.

When Williams Kastner established this strategic relationship with the
NWIRP, our firm had only a few attorneys with significant immigration
law experience. We quickly changed this and learned the fundamentals
and nuances of immigration law through a training program, presented
to us by the NWIRP. We secured this initial resource and assistance
by committing to take multiple cases – we now have more than a dozen
attorneys who have successfully represented clients in immigration
proceedings. For new attorneys joining the firm and becoming involved
in the pro bono program, we have experienced attorneys who serve as
an in-house training resource in the area of immigration law.

Williams Kastner has also received greater recognition for
our pro bono work because our efforts are more concentrated and
coordinated. Last year, after having obtained asylum for nearly a
dozen clients, the NWIRP presented Williams Kastner with its Amicus
Award for "extraordinary contributions" to the organization. The award
validated our attorneys’ efforts, and we now have more lawyers than
ever representing NWIRP clients.

Most law firms have lawyers who pursue and support pro bono work in
their communities. Williams Kastner has found that a more coordinated
and focused pro bono program yields enormous results for the law
firm as well as the organization it supports. Whether the pro bono
cause chosen involves immigration, landlord-tenant disputes, child
protective services or some other cause, the benefits that such a
program offers include:

1. increased early opportunities for new attorneys to develop key
practice skills and to gain experience in court and working directly
with clients;

2. wider participation of attorneys across the organization;

3. high attorney morale by allowing attorneys to work together to
support a cause in which they believe;

4. additional resources for attorney education and training regarding
the substantive areas of law involved;

5. more interaction, mentoring and collaboration between senior and
junior attorneys;

6. the ability to make a greater difference through a focused and
coordinated effort which, in turn, is likely to lead to greater public
recognition for the attorneys’ pro bono efforts.

The appreciation earned for saving a life exceeds any fees ever
earned. An effective pro bono program can yield enormous rewards.