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Partner Joseph F. Wayland laughs at the suggestion that the economic downturn might force New York’s Simpson Thacher & Bartlett to cut back on charitable work. If he isn’t genuinely amused, he’s a fine actor. The firm is in the latter stages of bankrolling a massive pro bono project that climaxed a year ago in a seven-month trial, in which the plaintiffs sought to overturn the way in which New York finances public education. It was as complex and demanding as any corporate litigation, he says. “We joked that I was the best-paid pro bono lawyer in the country, because my partners let me do this virtually full time,” Wayland says. “They let me put together a team of eight lawyers. I spent $13 million plus change. And not once, never, did anyone tell me that I should hold back.” On Jan. 10, 2001, Justice Leland Degrasse of the New York Supreme Court ruled that the New York City school system fails to provide students with a chance to get a sound basic education, and that the state school finance system is unconstitutional. An appeal followed and has been briefed. An opinion is expected in about two months. Whatever the outcome, the loser is sure to take it to the state’s high court, the New York Court of Appeals. Campaign for Fiscal Equity Inc. v. State of New York, No. 111070/93. A COMPLIMENT But for the interim, Degrasse offered the following bouquet: “The court commends the law firm of Simpson Thacher & Bartlett … . The firm expended enormous resources and its lawyers brought to bear great talent and perseverance in support of plaintiff’s cause. The firm’s commitment is an exemplar of the Bar’s highest traditions.” Wayland, who has chaired the firm’s five-lawyer pro bono committee for four years, says the project was so extravagant that it would be unreasonable to expect a comparable effort every year. But he says that at a large firm there should be “no relationship” between pro bono and public service and whether billable hours are up or down. Distinguishing Simpson Thacher’s commitment to donating legal services is the fact that the most senior partners take part, Wayland says. He joined the firm in 1988, and headed both the trial and the appellate teams in the school case. A second headline-grabber, an Americans With Disabilities Act case that Simpson Thacher won in the U.S. Supreme Court last May, used the talents of Roy L. Reardon, who chairs the firm’s litigation department and has been a partner since 1964. The firm periodically looks at various other models for pro bono service — for example, lending young associates to worthy community legal projects. “But we end up rejecting that, because it is part of our firm culture that partners integrate service to the community into their entire career,” Wayland says. Simpson Thacher is one of the firms most often cited by American Bar Association do-gooders who need evidence that profits and pro bono can coexist peacefully. In one recent study, the firm, with gross annual revenues of $500 million, tied with New York’s Davis Polk & Wardwell for fourth place in a ranking of profits per equity partner. The firm lays claim to some 35,000 hours of pro bono and community service a year, an average of 50 to 60 hours per lawyer. Work can arise because a lawyer originates a project, or because the firm has a continuing relationship with a community organization. Such organizations include the Legal Aid Society, Bronx and Queens Legal Services, the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights, the Office of the Appellate Defender, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts and Doctors Without Borders. A third route entails a not-for-profit group that comes to the firm with a project that is overwhelming its resources, as the Campaign for Fiscal Equality did with the school finance case. In recent years, the firm has handled matters as diverse as assisting a Nicaraguan Indian tribe in negotiating timber contracts and representing prison inmates challenging death sentences in Missouri and Florida. Other efforts have included domestic relations disputes, AIDS patient personal planning, landlord-tenant disputes, landmarks conservancy, international emergency medical relief and political asylum cases. In the school reform case, the Campaign for Fiscal Equality, with two lawyers on staff, had the advantage of a highly placed friend. The chairman of Simpson Thacher’s executive committee, Richard I. Beattie, founded New Visions for Public Schools, a nonprofit group, in the mid-1980s when he was also a member of the Board of Education under board president Robert F. Wagner Jr. “Bobby and I strategized about this lawsuit years ago,” Beattie says of his friend Wagner, who died of a heart attack in 1993 when he was 49. But in fact, according to Wayland, nearly every project that gets as far as a formal proposal to the pro bono committee is approved, except cases that present a conflict of interest or those in which the lawyers seem to be in over their heads. An example of the former would be representing consumers who claim they are being ripped off by credit card practices. A major part of the firm’s practice is representing banks and other financial institutions. Highly controversial causes get slightly different handling. A lawyer who wanted to represent, for example, an abortion clinic would be given the go-ahead but would have to leave the firm’s name off the pleadings. “That way, we think our lawyers can have more freedom to pursue a variety of causes,” says Wayland. The firm dates from the 1880s, and has had its current name since 1904. The partner most frequently mentioned as the firm’s model for public service is Whitney North Seymour Sr., who joined Simpson Thacher in 1923 and established a patrician agenda for generations of incoming associates. In the 1930s, Seymour successfully represented a young black man convicted of violating Georgia’s anti-insurrection law, overturning the conviction in a 1937 Supreme Court case — and leaving behind powerful language about lawyers’ professional obligation to take on underfunded and unpopular causes. “He was the epitome of the public lawyer whose counsel was sought, who was a champion of civil rights and who had a commitment to improving society,” says Wayland. The most recent examples of the tradition include: � The ruling on behalf of professional golfer Casey Martin in May 2001. � Representing the Natural Resources Defense Council over prohibitions on logging and road-building in roadless areas throughout the country’s national forests. � Winning an arbitration to reclaim the domain name doctorswithoutborders.com for the relief organization. � Writing a successful amicus brief for the American Civil Liberties Union in a hate-crime case before the Nebraska Supreme Court. If Simpson Thacher is able to collect its costs from the state for the school reform case, the firm plans to plow the money back into its pro bono efforts.

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