Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr's Seth Waxman.
Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr’s Seth Waxman. (Photo: Diego M. Radzsinchi/ALM)

In 2016, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr pro bono lawyers upended the death sentencing scheme in Florida and other states, opened the door to potentially thousands of dollars in federal contracts for veteran-owned small businesses, and reined in how certain offenses count toward deportation and enhanced sentences. And that was just in the U.S. Supreme Court.

With co-counsel, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the firm’s lawyers, led by Jonathan Paikin and Kelly Dunbar, secured victories at trial and before the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit challenging Texas’ voter ID law, one of the strictest in the country. And another team, led by Paul Wolfson, Mark Fleming, Felicia Ellsworth and Alan Schoenfeld, won a mandamus order from the First Circuit directing a recalcitrant district court to strike down Puerto Rico’s same-sex marriage ban.

Pro bono “is just part of the DNA here,” said Seth Waxman, co-chair of the firm’s Supreme Court and appellate practice. “We have average attorney billing 100 hours in pro bono last year. If you ask folks who run the firm, what are the hallmarks of the firm, there’s no question that pro bono is in the very first couple of sentences.”

Waxman himself is a major part of that pro bono tradition. He and Catherine Carroll won an 8-1 high court ruling last year in Hurst v. Florida that held Florida’s capital sentencing scheme violated the Sixth Amendment.

“Seth and his firm took over the case [when the Supreme Court granted review] and just did a stunningly good job,” said assistant public defender David Davis in Tallahassee who requested Waxman’s assistance. “I’m humbly saying this is probably the most significant death-penalty case since Ring [ v. Arizona (2002)]. Other states have had to change the way they do things.”

Partner Thomas Saunders won a unanimous high court decision giving veteran-owned small businesses priority in bidding for VA contracts in Kingdomware Technologies v. United States. And Mark Fleming persuaded a 5-3 majority in Mathis v. United States on how to view enhanced sentencing under the Armed Career Criminal Act with implications for immigration law as well.

“I think Tom’s amazing win in Kingdomware and Mark’s very improbable win in Mathis is a pretty good reflection of the range of pro bono we do,” Waxman said. But, he added, most of the pro bono work done is not marquee Supreme Court work.The firm is spending 6,000 hours a year evaluating federal sentences for potential commutations and pardons, among other projects.

“It’s something that’s for real here,” Waxman said.