Big Law Joins Opposition To Trump's Refugee Ban

Thousands of protesters gathered at San Francisco International Airport in response to President Trump's executive order denying refugees and foreign citizens from predominantly Muslim countries entry into the U.S. (Photo: Jason Doiy / ALM) Thousands of protesters gathered at San Francisco International Airport in response to President Trump’s executive order denying refugees and foreign citizens from predominantly Muslim countries entry into the U.S.
(Photo: Jason Doiy / ALM)


Lawyers mobilized over the weekend after President Donald Trump announced Friday that refugees couldn’t enter the U.S. for four months and immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries would be barred for three months.

Among those who rushed to U.S. airports to help and protest on Saturday were the nation’s big business lawyers, in some cases from the very firms whose partners advise the Trump administration and lobby Congress.

Attorneys have set up shop at the O’Hare McDonald’s as they work to get the 18 people held out

— Stacy St. Clair (@StacyStClair) January 28, 2017

LITERALLY on the ground. Volunteer lawyers are working pro-bono on a Saturday preparing habeus corpus petitions for detainees at JFK.

— NYC Mayor’s Office (@NYCMayorsOffice) January 28, 2017

I’ve covered a lot of protests. This is the first where I’ve heard energetic chants in favor of lawyers

— Betsy Woodruff (@woodruffbets) January 29, 2017

The legal work has already provoked an official response from the judiciary. Federal judges in Virginia, Seattle, Boston and Brooklyn, New York, paused the deportation of some affected immigrants. U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema in Alexandria, Virginia, further said that people detained at Washington Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia would have the right to attorneys.

Steven H. Schulman-Vert-201702031238 Steven Schulman of Akin Gump

Steven Schulman, head of the worldwide pro bono practice at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in Washington, D.C., described in a conversation with The National Law Journal late Saturday night how large firms have become involved.

The National Law Journal: What have you been working on all day?

Schulman: It started in the last couple of days. When the executive order was leaked, we started advising some of our clients from various countries that are on the list not to travel outside of the U.S. Then, in the last day, I got a notice from one of my clients from Syria—who’s a human rights activist and has been resident here for a number of years, has three U.S. citizen children and a wife living in Northern Virginia—that he traveled to Turkey for work and is still there. So that was the most immediate issue that came up and what we started to work on.

Then [Saturday] morning, an all-points bulletin went out for immigration lawyers from the International Refugee Assistance Project to mobilize lawyers. I have a number of clients that we represent from Syria, Iraq, Somalia, from a lot of the countries that are on the list. Many of them are here in the U.S. There are still a lot of questions about what will happen with their pending applications if they’re here. But the most urgent issue revolved around travel.

NLJ: So it’s typical for firms to already represent people like that, by helping them immigrate as part of an established pro bono program?

Schulman: Oh, sure. People would be applying for asylum, for example, from Iraq or from Syria, here. What is different today, and what is different from the typical work that really anybody does is the airport-based work. Typically immigration lawyers are not involved directly at the airport because, until Judge Brinkema issued [an order] within the last hour, you couldn’t really get back to what’s called “secondary” at the airport. [A secondary area is one where new arrivals are questioned and detained.]

We would certainly represent people who were arriving in the U.S. and had expressed a credible fear. But even there, that representation was mainly at the border. I would venture to say that very few immigration lawyers had been to Dulles Airport in the last several years before today.

NLJ: Do you have people at the airport now?

Schulman: There is nobody from Akin Gump there right now, but we’ve been communicating regularly and helping out. I hosted a conference call at 3 p.m. today for volunteer lawyers. The list that IRAP started today has grown to nearly 300 lawyers. A lot [of lawyers] from big firms, but also immigration lawyers and other people around.

NLJ: What are other large firms doing? Are you seeing other heavy-hitters in the legal industry working on this?

Schulman: A lot of the firms have been all over the country in New York, also Los Angeles, Chicago and other places. I know that Kirkland & Ellis staffed Terminal 4 at [New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport] today. Obviously Kilpatrick was involved with the ACLU and their suit. So a number of firms have stepped up in this crisis. [Senior counsel Jonathan Polonsky of Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton was among those who petitioned the case in New York.]

NLJ: You said Kirkland lawyers were working at Terminal 4, but that firm also has people advising the Trump administration. How much does politics of the moment factor into a law firm’s decisions to get involved?

Schulman: From our view, as one of my partners put it, this is Atticus Finch stuff. This is about individuals. Of course as law firms we are very frequently representing individuals who are opposed to government action, whether that is people who are called up on congressional investigations, whether it’s in our white-collar defense practice or in our international trade practice. We are often adverse to the government. This really should be no different than any of the other work that high-profile law firms do.

NLJ: What else should we expect to see from the legal community, especially Big Law, this next week?

Schulman: We are equipped to mobilize a number of lawyers. What I’m hoping to see is that we can provide some real organization and backbone to the effort so that lawyers who are either individual practitioners or smaller firms can access resources and get involved in ways that aren’t compromising to their own practices.

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