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The daily practice of pro bono law in New York, like so many other things in the days and weeks following last year’s terrorist attacks, has radically changed. Clients still traumatized by the events of Sept. 11 have myriad legal difficulties met with a whole new “one-stop” shopping model. And their lawyers have struck personal bonds that promise to achieve the vision of Judith S. Kaye, Chief Judge of the State of New York: to keep the momentum of volunteerism going for years to come. The newness of all this is personified by two lawyers from ordinarily competitive firms who otherwise might not have met but who work together so closely today that they routinely finish one another’s sentences: Saralyn Cohen of Shearman & Sterling and Debra Brown Steinberg of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft. “For me and for those who think like me, this is one of the greatest things that’s happened,” said Cohen, who carries the title pro bono attorney at Shearman. “We’ve really all gotten together. I mean really together. “Sure, I knew about my counterparts at the other firms. And I’d go to national meetings, or I’d participate in city Bar committees. But that’s not what I mean by together.” The two women met early last October when private-firm lawyers answered calls for pro bono help from labor unions representing hundreds of low-income workers whose lives were devastated — or ended — in the destruction of the World Trade Center: waiters and buspersons of Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Local 100, and building maintenance staffers of Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ. “The collaboration between Sara [Saralyn Cohen] and me was there right from the beginning of the consortium,” said Steinberg. “I admired her intelligence and her heart and her approach to pro bono.” Steinberg, a litigation partner, had been happily involved in fraud cases brought against such Wall Street miscreants as Ivan Boesky, Michael Milken, Dennis Levine and Martin Siegel. Then along came Sept. 11, occurring on the verge of her departure for a well-deserved vacation after settling a securities suit in Texas courts. Instead of leaving town, Steinberg went to the office. Her career was about to take a huge detour. “I sort of have two jobs now,” said Steinberg. “I’m doing the regular things for seven hours a day or so, and then I’m doing pro bono into the evening.” Of her comrade’s added duties, Cohen said, “There’s more than a little social work thrown in.” “Yes,” Steinberg agreed. “I guess a lot of what we’ve done isn’t what you’d call law actually … “ Here Cohen cut in: “Getting a kid with a parent who died in the World Trade Center into summer camp … “ Steinberg finished the thought: “Getting a kid violin lessons … “ To be sure, Cohen and Steinberg have handled weightier matters — by themselves, or with the help of other lawyers at likewise ordinarily competing firms such as Simpson Thacher & Bartlett; White & Case; Stroock & Stroock & Lavan; Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton; Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson; and Fragomen Del Rey Bernsen & Loewy. Nor are they shy in asking for free legal help from in-house counsel at major corporations — notably Jean O’Hare at Pfizer — or pro bono tax consulting work from Richard A. Eisner & Company. Additionally, the two women contacted Elizabeth Kane, director of public service programs at Brooklyn Law School, who in turn commandeered 60 student volunteers to perform research and application work on behalf of pro bono union clients and their families desperately in need of financial assistance. “What we’ve seen is that it’s possible to put together a team approach, as needed,” said Steinberg. “What we don’t have, we can fill in by picking up the phone and asking. Nobody’s ever turned us down.” “Nobody” includes David Nocenti, counsel to New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. Nocenti played a vital role in shepherding legislation in Albany that solved a seemingly impossible obstacle in qualifying Steinberg and Cohen’s union client families for relief funds. CHANGING THE LAW As a prerequisite to filing claims, a next-of-kin individual or institution had to be named as administrator. Under New York law, individuals had to be either U.S. citizens or legal residents. None of the affected family members enjoyed either status. When banks and other financial institutions were asked to step into place as surrogate administrators, their legal counsels balked at the “fiduciary trust” aspect of such responsibility, with its implied potential for future litigation. Nocenti had an idea for a way out. “He called and asked me to draft some legislation,” Steinberg said. “I had about two days.” Accordingly, Steinberg telephoned the person who knew better than she did about such matters: Ann Berger Lesk, a partner at Fried Frank and head of the firm’s trusts and estates department. STANDARD OF RESPONSIBILITY Working with Nocenti and Lesk, Steinberg was able to hastily draw up legislation to alter the standard of responsibility from “fiduciary trust” to the less burdensome “good faith,” thus greatly relieving counsel for the banks. That legislation — the Sept. 11 Victims and Families Relief Act — was signed into law on May 21. Such tandem legal work is precisely what Cohen means by together. Cohen: “New York should be proud … “ Steinberg: “Because it just goes on and on like that … “ Cohen: “It’s like a brain trust … “ Steinberg: “Yeah, like a support group. A lot of lawyers were scared. They were taking on [client] families with problems that they’d never worked on … “ Cohen: “But now we just pick up the phone and call each other … “ Steinberg: “We take advantage of everybody’s strengths, which doesn’t scare people anymore because of their weaknesses … “ Cohen: “Take the two of us, for example. Every day, we kibitz.” One day — perhaps this fall, when she hopes to see her union clients fully vested in the federal Victims Compensation Fund — Steinberg will return full time to her litigation duties. Perhaps she might even take a well-deserved vacation. Until then, Steinberg acts as Cadwalader’s de facto pro bono chief, which she described as “the most professionally fulfilling experience of my career.”

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