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At day’s end, Kevin Curnin may stand in the main conference room of his downtown Manhattan law firm and enjoy a skyscraper view of the fabled Brooklyn Bridge, knowing that once again he has battled on the side of the angels. Or as Curnin describes the satisfaction of his full-time pro bono labors for Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, “There are people in Brooklyn who look over and see this building, and they say, ‘Wow, the lawyers over there, they helped us!’ “ But just 3.2 percent of attorneys work part-time, compared with 2.9 percent in 1999. And associates work part time more than partners: 4.4 percent compared to only 1.9 percent of partners, according to the survey. Without Curnin and other Stroock attorneys that he enlists in various causes, poor people and striving small business establishments in the Fort Greene, Clinton Hill and Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhoods of New York simply could not afford the legal counsel necessary to keep their hopes and struggles alive. In a recent talk to students at New York Law School, Evan A. Davis addressed the vital place of pro bono work performed by the city’s law firms. “Without access to justice for the poor, the legal system loses the ‘equal justice’ grounding for its legitimacy,” said Davis, president of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York and a partner at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton. “Without access to justice for the poor, the legal system becomes something the rich use to beat up on the poor.” Most large law firms have pro bono programs of some sort, but Stroock has formalized its efforts under the aegis of The Public Service Project, covering all Stroock offices: New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Washington, D.C. Curnin, a sixth-year litigation associate, became the project’s first “Attorney Director” in February. Rather than operate purely as an administrator, Curnin, 36, has his own pro bono caseload in addition to supervising others. The attorney director position is to be held on a rotating basis, which guarantees “fresh perspective,” said Curnin, as well as advancement opportunity for Stroock associates who are particularly interested in handling pro bono litigation or transactional work. The Public Service Project came about as the result of a year’s efforts by Curnin and senior partners at Stroock, notably Robert Lewin of the commercial litigation department and managing partner Thomas E. Heftler. “The practice of law isn’t all about making money,” said Heftler. “Under Bob Lewin, we’ve had a strong pro bono committee for many years. And now Kevin’s come along with an inspiration. “What Kevin suggested is that we apply the secrets of success in our practice areas to our pro bono effort,” said Heftler. “That means you’ve got to be a market leader, you’ve got to be really cutting-edge, and willing to spend the time to make it work.” Pro bono cases “don’t just happen,” as Curnin put it. “They’re not there for the taking. You have to look for work that would best help an individual or a community. “And you’ve got to involve more attorneys in pro bono, particularly nonlitigators,” he added, with reference to the business development work Stroock does on behalf of the Pratt Area Community Council of Brooklyn. “One morning you’re working for a bodega, and that afternoon you’re working with a major bank. One thing enhances the other. It makes you think more creatively.” To which Heftler added, “Pro bono work is a terribly gratifying experience. When most of your contacts are corporate, here you get to work in a context where people aren’t used to seeing lawyers. You can be a star. You’re doing something good. It makes you feel good being a lawyer.” NOTABLE PROJECTS Ronald Tabak, 51, is Curnin’s approximate counterpart as “pro bono coordinator” at Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom. Notable Skadden pro bono projects include asylum work for Somalian and Tibetan nationals, an amici curiae brief in the appeals case of a gay/straight high school student alliance forbidden by the Salt Lake City Board of Education, incorporation of the Amadou Diallo Foundation in New York, and a clinic for low-income taxpayers in Brooklyn. Tabak, unlike Curnin, is not on a partnership track as a special counsel at Skadden. But he said, “Of the hundreds of lawyers here [at Skadden] who do pro bono work, many are on partner tracks. Those [doing pro bono work] who are partners are equity partners.” Opportunities for Skadden associates to involve themselves in pro bono work begin “on arrival,” said Tabak. “We survey each attorney as to what areas of pro bono they would be interested in.” Tabak said he follows up with “frequent e-mailings” and an in-house computer site that includes “recent case lists, plus areas of pro bono that aren’t covered by case lists.” Surely the week’s most dramatic success in pro bono work was the capstone to 20 years’ capital appellate work by Edwin Matthews Jr., a partner at Coudert Brothers who ordinarily specializes in international corporate and commercial law. Bob Herbert, the New York Times columnist, lauded Matthews’ successful effort in overturning the murder conviction of an inmate on Idaho’s death row. Of the defendant in question, and of justice for poor people in general, Herbert wrote, “What if he hadn’t the … resources of Coudert Brothers? When you tally the many thousands of hours of legal work that went into the case, and the expenditures made … the cost of securing justice … ran to well over $5 million. Now consider that 97 percent of the defendants on death row are indigent.” At Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCloy, Joseph S. Genova, a partner in the public service department, directs the pro bono portfolio. Genova’s deputy is Anthony Perez Cassino, 35, who formerly ran the New York State Bar Association’s pro bono program. “Lawyers [at Milbank Tweed] decide what they want to do,” said Cassino. “We don’t take a [pro bono] case and say we’ll place it.” First-year associates at Milbank Tweed are encouraged to devote themselves to two months’ pro bono work of their choosing, Cassino said. This year, the program has been extended to include fourth-year associates. Like Stroock, encouragement for pro bono involvement at Milbank Tweed comes from the upper ranks of the firm. In fact, Andrew E. Tomback, a litigation partner and top biller at Milbank Tweed is set to receive the New York State Bar’s pro bono award for the First Judicial District. Tomback, who was instrumental in winning a minimum-wage guarantee for homeless workers employed by the Grand Central Partnership, will receive the award next month. Even without a formal program, the firm of Cravath Swaine & Moore has volunteered lawyers in death penalty cases on a number of occasions, in the rights of welfare clients to legal services, and in orders of protection on behalf of battered women. Cravath’s pro bono efforts are informally directed by three of its partners: Stuart W. Gold, Paul C. Saunders and Allen C. Parker. “All of our partners are free to go out and find pro bono cases,” said Gold. “We also act as outside general counsel for Covenant House and outside counsel for Phoenix House.” Most importantly for Cravath associates, all pro bono hours are counted equally with billable hours in performance reviews. The same holds true for associates at Milbank Tweed, Skadden Arps and Stroock. Like first kisses, lawyers with a keen interest in pro bono work remember their maiden voyages in volunteer lawyering. Curnin certainly does. “She was a 4-year-old autistic girl,” Curnin said of his first pro bono client. “The school that was three blocks from her home said she had to go elsewhere. It just wasn’t right.” Curnin researched the New York laws guaranteeing equal access to public schools by all children. He then wrote up a brief, he said, and “persuaded” the principal to listen to his better angels. Curnin, who has a 5-year-old daughter of his own and an infant son, said of his former client, “She’s doing just great now.”

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