Seth Waxman of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr.

Describe your firm’s philosophy on pro bono service.

Wilmer encourages all lawyers, including new associates and summer associates, to participate in a wide variety of pro bono activities. We endorse the principle that every lawyer has a professional responsibility to use a portion of his or her time for pro bono legal service and recognize that pro bono work often exposes lawyers to types of legal and professional work that is not otherwise readily available.

Of the big cases your firm worked on, one included representing Robert McCoy in the McCoy v. Louisiana case. Tell us more about that case and how you reached the outcome.

McCoy was a fascinating, foundational case. As Mr. McCoy was under sentence of death, the stakes could not have been higher. Plus, the facts were so stark and the legal principle so arresting: Against Mr. McCoy’s expressed wishes, his lawyer told the jury he was guilty. People have a sense that such an admission is improper, but identifying the relevant constitutional principle and its limits proved a challenge. Our principal argument was that criminal defendants have a Sixth Amendment autonomy right to not have their lawyers admit their guilt to the jury when they specifically instruct their lawyers not to. The justices based their opinion largely on this ground, adopting points we made in our briefs and at oral argument.

What was the most satisfying aspect of that key case?

Obtaining a fair outcome for our client (and, we hope, others who are similarly situated) was certainly the most satisfying aspect of the representation, but so was our role in helping to establish a fundamental rule regarding the balance a lawyer must draw between respecting his client’s right to make certain fundamental decisions, on the one hand, and using his own best professional judgment in vigorously advancing the client’s interests.

Discuss other key pro bono matters recently completed by the firm.

In 2019, the Sixth Circuit denied the Social Security Administration’s petition for rehearing en banc of its holding that SSA’s eligibility redetermination procedures are unconstitutional and violate the Administrative Procedure Act. As many as 2,000 indigent individuals stand to benefit.

We concluded our representation of Ms. C, a human trafficking victim. U.S.-based individuals trafficked her from Cambodia to California in 2013 and forced her to work in their homes and businesses without pay. We secured a discharge upgrade to “honorable” for Helen Grace James, who was given an “undesirable” discharge from the military in 1955 for being lesbian. After nearly 60 years, Ms. James has finally received the recognition she deserves, including eligibility for military honors at her funeral.

Why does your pro bono work matter to you as a lawyer?

Pro bono work is important because it is a great way to help truly advance the main calling of our profession, which is to try and achieve justice. As lawyers, we have certain skills, and using them on behalf of people for whom such help is otherwise unavailable helps to make the world a fairer, more just place. Mr. McCoy’s case is a good example.

Responses submitted by Christopher Herrling, pro bono counsel, and Seth Waxman, co-chair of the appellate and Supreme Court litigation practice at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr.