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When Mary Ellen Callahan first started as an associate at Hogan & Hartson in Washington, D.C., she knew that she was interested in getting involved in pro bono international human rights work. At the time, Hogan & Hartson’s pro bono human rights practice mainly represented asylum-seekers before U.S. immigration decision-making bodies. Callahan hoped to do something broader. Then she heard that Hogan was taking on a lawsuit against the ruling political party of Zimbabwe. In the case, several Zimbabwean plaintiffs alleged abuse and violence before the 2000 Zimbabwe elections in violation of international law. The plaintiffs accused the ruling party, ZANU-PF, of violently intimidating opposition party supporters in the weeks before the election. “I was interested in human rights work, and when I saw this [case] three years ago, I thought, ‘I want to be a part of this,’ ” Callahan says. She has spent more than 200 pro bono hours a year for the past three years. And she says that while she enjoys her work as an antitrust lawyer, her work for her Zimbabwean clients “ has been really fulfilling on my part and on the part of everyone who has worked on [the case].” The several lawyers at Hogan & Hartson working on the case have spent “thousands” of pro bono hours on it, she estimates. Callahan’s story is not unusual in the law firm world these days. It used to be the only kind of pro bono human rights work available was representing asylum seekers. Although asylum cases are still popular, firms have begun to take on broader human rights cases. Esther Lardent, president of the Pro Bono Institute at Georgetown University Law Center, says that although there is no hard data on the increase in human rights pro bono work, there is a noticeable trend. “In talking with lots of people from law firms and reviewing information provided to us by firms, we are seeing more and more firms highlighting [international human rights] work,” she says. “Also, groups like Human Rights First report a strong surge in the number of [human rights] matters referred to pro bono attorneys” adds Lardent. These can mean asylum work, the documentation of human rights abuses, Alien Tort Claims Act cases, or providing research and writing support for human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in other countries. REASONS FOR THE TREND There are two main reasons for the jump in international pro bono work. The primary reason seems to be the increasing interest in international issues by law students and young associates. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, foreign policy has risen to the top of the U.S. agenda. In particular, the war on terror has presented some interesting legal issues. Elisa Massimino, head of the D.C. office of Human Rights First (formerly the Lawyers Committee on Human Rights), says, “Lawyers with an interest in international affairs are emerging and looking for ways to be involved.” (Like Callahan, Massimino started her human rights career with an asylum case as an associate at Hogan & Hartson.) For many, one way to get involved in international issues is through pro bono work. Asylum cases usually expose lawyers to global politics one person at a time. According to Steve Schulman, an attorney at Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll who formerly headed the pro bono practice at Latham & Watkins, many lawyers who had done asylum work for some time wanted to do something broader and more policy-based. And law firms have realized this interest in the law students they are recruiting. Lardent says of human rights work that “in addition to being important work and needed work,” it’s “kind of sexy.” International human rights often deals with things people read about in the newspaper or see on TV. “As September 11 taught us, we are one world, and what happens half a world away has a very direct, if not immediately apparent, impact on all of us,” Lardent explains. A second reason for the trend is that law firms are becoming worldwide institutions with offices in many countries. Says Lardent: “As more law firms view themselves as international or global, it is essential that they serve as good citizens overseas.” When a firm has worldwide offices, creating a firm culture can be a struggle. Lardent says that pro bono cases can link people from different offices and can help “create a sense of the firm as one institution.” Private firm lawyers are involved in human rights issues in a variety of ways. For instance, many cases come through NGOs. Jean Berman, head of the New York-based International Senior Lawyers Project, says, “There has been a real explosion of NGOs around the world in the last 15 years,” she says. “[M]any countries that were under dictatorships or communism that are no longer under these regimes have had a lot of civil society programs grow up.” Many “firms have gotten involved in providing research, writing, and guidance to human rights organizations abroad on all kinds of issues,” notes Berman. For example, firms are working in disability rights, criminal justice, and labor issues. Several D.C. law firms are providing research and writing support for a human rights legal network in India. Another firm has worked on international penal reform, and others have sent attorneys abroad to work with human rights NGOs. Finally, firms are even offering transactional and tax work for human rights groups seeking to open U.S. offices. Another source of human rights cases is the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA), under which victims of human rights abuses from other countries can sue their abusers in U.S. courts. Callahan has done just that with her case against ZANU-PF, the ruling political party of Zimbabwe. Callahan represents five Zimbabwean plaintiffs and the estates of three others who died in the violence used to intimidate opposition party supporters before the 2000 election. The plaintiffs accused ZANU-PF of killing opposition supporters, threatening their families, and burning their homes and land. The case is currently before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. At trial in the case a few years ago, no one appeared on behalf of the defendants. The U.S. government had previously intervened to argue that the defendants were covered by the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. The judge had denied that motion. Callahan remembers the dramatic testimony of the victims. The trial, she says, was “one of those things as a lawyer where everything I did today was to try to help people.” In addition to being personally fulfilling, the case has “ginned up a lot of interest [in international matters] in the firm,” she says. Since Sept. 11, a more unexpected way to do human rights work in U.S. courts has emerged: the Guantanamo Bay detainee cases. Massimino of Human Rights First says that these cases, dealing with governmental wartime powers, present “an interesting dynamic where international and domestic issues are coming together.” Kristine Huskey, an associate in the D.C. office of Shearman & Sterling, learned about human rights law during her work on behalf of Guantanamo Bay detainees. “Before I took this case, I didn’t know that much about the Geneva Conventions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the American Convention [on Human Rights], or the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” she says. Shearman & Sterling took on the case of several Kuwaiti detainees after they were turned down by other D.C. firms due to the case’s politically controversial nature. When Huskey began work, she realized it was going to be a tough issue. “People I went to law school with could not believe I was taking this case,” she says. After the terrorist attacks, few Americans seemed to be concerned with ensuring rights for these detainees. Huskey says she was “surprised that people couldn’t remember our basic law training of the rule of law and justice.” But the firm was supportive. In this case, Shearman & Sterling was paid but donated the fees, making it a pro bono matter. A legal team led by partner Thomas Wilner represented the plaintiffs in Al Odah v. United States. The Supreme Court ruled for the plaintiffs in the conjoined cases of Rasul v. Bush and Al Odah on June 28. POTENTIAL CONFLICTS While the level of controversy generated by the Guantanamo Bay cases is rare for a pro bono case, working on international human rights can present other issues for large, international law firms. Schulman says that “for the most part, pro bono human rights cases are noncontroversial.” A law firm engages in pro bono work to help both the community and its own image. In cases where law firms have offices in other countries, however, pro bono work can get complicated. Schulman says that when he was at Latham & Watkins, the firm tried to avoid pro bono cases against governments or companies in countries where Latham lawyers were working. D.C. law firms in particular tend to represent governments themselves — including many with notoriously poor human rights records. This can pose a problem for potential pro bono human rights work against those governments. But Schulman adds that there is plenty of human rights work to go around, and firms rarely represent many governments at once. Even so, Massimino of Human Rights First maintains that this is still an issue. Law firms will prioritize paying clients and shy away from pro bono cases where there may be conflicts, she says, or “sensitivities such as not wanting to offend foreign governments where firms are looking to do business or have an office.” One particular conflict for law firms doing ATCA cases is the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. The FSIA limits the ability of plaintiffs to file suit against foreign governments or governmental entities. Often when firms represent foreign governments in non-human-rights cases, they argue that the FSIA applies broadly to immunize foreign governments from suit. In representing plaintiffs in pro bono ATCA cases, however, the firms might be required to argue that the FSIA should be narrowly applied. One group of innovative law firm associates created their own nonprofit. They have to clear their pro bono work with their firm. The group, Freedom Now, represents political prisoners around the world. Freedom Now has filed briefs before the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention against the governments of Burma, Pakistan, China, and Vietnam. Overall, the amount and variety of pro bono human rights work done by law firms is increasing dramatically, notes Lardent. It’s a good trend, says Massimino. Doing pro bono international work is “a terrific way to learn about the international system and about international law,” she says. “I’m hoping that it will spawn a demand amongst firms and law students to get more of a foundation in international law.” In the future, predicts Massimino, a foundation in international law will be a crucial component of a lawyer’s education. Susan P. Zentay is a freelance writer and lawyer in Washington, D.C.

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