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Lawyers may not like the idea of being forced to work for free, but New Jersey’s biggest firms are putting in more unpaid hours than ever before, and more of their lawyers are rising to the task. Pro bono hours at the Top 20 firms reached 61,150 in 1999, a 9.8 percent increase from 55,703 the year before. It’s also the highest number of hours logged since the New Jersey Law Journal began grading firms’ pro bono efforts in 1991. Besides total hours going up, most of the firms reported more lawyers taking on pro bono work. The percentage of lawyers with more than 20 hours of work during the year increased at 12 of the 20 firms. The survey weights total hours and percentage of lawyers with more than 20 hours to produce a pro bono raw score for each firm, which is then plotted on a curve with the other firms to produce a pro bono “grade.” As a consequence, every firm’s grade is affected by the “class average.” Only one firm, Roseland, N.J.’s Lowenstein Sandler, earned an A+. Following Lowenstein were Drinker, Biddle & Shanley (A); Riker, Danzig, Scherer, Hyland & Perretti (A) and Gibbons, Del Deo, Dolan, Griffinger & Vecchione (A-). Lowenstein logged the most hours with 11,045, but Drinker Biddle had the highest percentage of lawyers in the 20-plus-hour category with 91, or nearly 64 percent of the firm. Drinker Biddle nosed out Riker Danzig for the No. 2 spot, as the Morristown, N.J., firm slipped to A from A+ in 1998. The major shift in grades, however was the increasing concentration toward the “gentleman’s C” or, more appropriately, the “esquire’s C.” For 1999, 10 of the 20 firms had grades of C, C+ or C-, as compared with six C-level places in 1998. Top 20 newcomer Fox, Rothschild, O’Brien & Frankel fit right in, with a C+ and 25.7 percent of its lawyers working more than 20 pro bono hours toward a 1,603-hour total, for a ninth place showing. Where did the firms spend their pro bono hours? All over. They appeared in municipal courts, state courts, courts of other states, and various federal courts, including at least two appearances — one of them successful — in the U.S. Supreme Court. Most of their clients were from New Jersey, but some were on death rows in Virginia and Alabama or had traveled to the United States from places like Tibet, Burma, Algeria, Somalia, Rwanda, Costa Rica and Sierra Leone in search of political asylum. Lowenstein Sandler associates Creighton Drury and Alix Rubin have been working for equitable school funding in the continuing litigation of Abbott v. Burke and representing children forced off Social Security disability benefits, respectively. A class action filed in federal court last year by Lowenstein Sandler partner David Harris against the state Division of Youth and Family Services on behalf of the child advocacy organization Children’s Rights Inc. asserts due process and other claims on behalf of children in DYFS custody. Last November, Lowenstein associate Katrina Wright obtained a state court ruling allowing her to pursue a late-filed suit on behalf of former DYFS ward James Reele. He alleges that he was abused while in foster care after DYFS removed him and his brother from adoptive parents who allegedly kept them in dog kennels. Both suits are still pending. Attorneys at Lowenstein Sandler as well as Morristown’s Porzio, Bromberg & Newman and Newark, N.J.’s Sills Cummis Radin Tischman Epstein & Gross were among those who acted as guardians and sometimes advocates in proceedings seeking to terminate parental rights. In V.C. v. M.J.B., Woodbridge, N.J.’s Wilentz, Goldman partner David Wildstein represented the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and Lambda Families of New Jersey in a case that sought visitation rights for a mother’s former lesbian partner. They won a ruling that the former partner is entitled to visitation if she has forged a strong bond with the child and has provided the same familial support as the biological parent. Many pro bono hours also were spent on helping battered women obtain restraining orders against abusive spouses. Meghan Bennett, an associate at Florham Park, N.J.’s Pitney, Hardin, Kipp & Szuch and coordinator for the New Jersey Battered Women’s Legal Advocacy Project, helps find attorneys for women seeking restraining orders who would often otherwise be unrepresented against a spouse who has retained an attorney. Gibbons Del Deo continued with its unique fellowship program that devotes a partner and a few associates to full-time pro bono work. The fellowship’s namesake, former 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge John Gibbons, last October argued a habeas corpus case before the justices in Williams v. Taylor that resulted in the April 18 reversal of a Virginia death sentence for ineffective assistance of counsel. Aside from obtaining a new penalty phase hearing for Williams, Gibbons says he achieved a less restrictive and more reasonable interpretation of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act than had been reached by some circuit courts. In another death row case, Drinker Biddle partner Brian McDonough, assisted by colleagues in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania spent hundreds of hours representing Alabama death row inmate Freddie Lee Wright all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Wright was executed earlier this year. Drinker Biddle partner Daniel O’Connell says the firm is actively involved in death penalty cases and that partner Neil Cartusciello heads a project to represent indigent criminal defendants in cases assigned out of the Southern District of New York. Woodbridge’s Greenbaum, Rowe, Smith, Ravin, David & Himmel and Wilentz, Goldman are working together as appointed counsel on a federal civil rights suit against the Department of Corrections, Correctional Medical Services and others to obtain injunctive relief to secure adequate health care for inmates at East Jersey State Prison. Wilentz, Goldman partner Barry Albin, who is working on the case, along with associates Darren Gelber and John Hogan, says he is “acting for a group that is voiceless and powerless.” Several firms are handling political asylum cases. Brenda Liss, pro bono coordinator at McCarter & English, calls the cases, referred by the Lawyer’s Committee for Human Rights, rewarding, but intense and time-consuming. The cases provide a broadening experience, says Liss, in which “you learn how the other half lives.” Through the cases, she says, she has heard about “mindboggling” instances of torture. Pro bono efforts also assisted tenants. A program at Porzio Bromberg in conjunction with Essex-Newark Legal Services helps tenants recover wrongfully withheld security deposits. Though the amounts at issue are small, they are significant to the people involved, and associate Michael Weiss welcomes the opportunity to do “real legal work for real people” and “get beyond the faceless client.” Some attorneys also handled pro bono mediation. Drinker Biddle lawyers are serving as mediators of Small Claims and Special Civil cases in Morris County, N.J., at the rate of one or two per week. O’Connell says the program helps relieve court congestion. Robert Gilson, co-chairman of Riker Danzig’s pro bono program reports that this year’s Pro Bono Day at the firm will happen in conjunction with the summer associates’ program to encourage young lawyers to undertake such work.

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