Donald Curry concedes that it took a little “arm twisting” persuasion to convince his colleagues at an intellectual property firm to delve into pro bono. But persuasive he is.
In the three years since Curry, a partner at 175-lawyer Fitzpatrick, Cella, Harper & Scinto in Manhattan, has been running the firm’s pro bono committee, the average per-lawyer commitment increased from one hour annually to 39 while the percentage of attorneys devoting more than 20 hours a year jumped from 0.8 percent to nearly 35 percent, according to an annual survey of The American Lawyer.
Curry established pro bono practice groups in several areas, directly tapping the expertise of the Fitzpatrick IP lawyers—such as trademark, copyright and micro-entrepreneurs—but also in areas such as predatory lending, family law, veteran’s assistance and criminal appeals that are far removed from the firm’s bread-and-butter practice, according to managing partner Colleen Tracy.
Tracy said Curry has forged relationships with numerous organizations, ranging from the Legal Aid Society and City Bar Justice Center to Sanctuary for Families and the Veterans Consortium to provide pro bono opportunities for his colleagues, and himself: In 2010 and 2011, Tracy said, Curry personally put in 482 pro bono hours.
Curry donated his time to represent an illustrator in a copyright infringement case and a client in a predatory lending case. He was co-counsel with Legal Aid in a class action against a loan servicer, represented two veterans fighting for disability benefits and helped a woman staring at foreclosure to keep her home.
“I knew nothing about dealing with banks on foreclosure matters, but if it happened to my family, I’d figure it out,” Curry said.
He said he likes to both manage the firm’s pro bono efforts and participate in helping clients.
“I am very interested in doing work myself and actively supervising some of the associates,” Curry said. “I have kind of nominated myself to be the supervising partner and spend a fair amount of time working on the issues and meeting with the associates and kicking around legal issues and making sure we are doing the best we can.”
It all started with a modest firm initiative in mid-2009, when Fitzpatrick’s management committee decided to encourage more pro bono participation, partially in an effort to “give back” and partially as a matter of professional development. Curry, who had a track record of pro bono dating back to his early years as a Cravath, Swaine & Moore associate in the early 1980s, volunteered to lead the effort.
“It has been a little difficult to convince our IP attorneys that they are lawyers first and IP lawyers second, and that they do have the skills that lawyers at general practice firms have even if they don’t exercise them on a daily basis,” Curry acknowledged. “We have some professional skills. We are able to help people who have legal needs. We do it every day for our paying clients. Once you realize there are other people out there who need legal help but can’t afford it, it just seems to me that lawyers should try to help out as best they can.”
Curry said several lawyers at Fitzpatrick who were initially reluctant to get involved in issues such as landlord-tenant disputes and foreclosures now tell him the pro bono work is exceptionally rewarding and fulfilling.
Pro bono clients “are hurting for basic needs, and they are just overwhelmed when you say you will help them,” Curry said. “The clients are just so grateful.”
Marlene Halpern, supervising attorney for pro bono at Legal Aid, said Curry approached her when he was building the Fitzpatrick program and asked how he and the firm could help.
“One of the things that came up very early was foreclosure and predatory lending because Fitzpatrick does not generally represent banks and financial institutions and wouldn’t have a conflict,” Halpern said. “It is complex, but we had a real need and they stepped in and became our co-counsel in a class action. Don is the leader who makes it happen.”
Halpern said Fitzpatrick has, on very short notice, successfully handled several cases involving people whose housing subsidies were cut off.
“He doesn’t come from a firm where there was a pro bono structure, but because of Don it happened very quickly,” she said. “He is the engine that drives it.”
Carol Bockner, director of pro bono initiatives with the City Bar Justice Center, said Curry has been instrumental both in establishing relationships between his firm and the pro bono community, and in setting an example.
“In addition to coordinating pro bono in his firm, he is an outstanding volunteer and a great role model as a partner because he himself is doing a lot of the work,” Bockner said, adding that Curry has personally handled several matters involving veterans seeking entitlements from the Veterans Administration. “What is really wonderful about him is that if we ever send out a notice and say we’re having a clinic and we’re a few attorneys short, he always, always volunteers. Even if he can’t take another case, he will always come and help out with the clinic.”
Curry, 61, a New Jersey native, has degrees in engineering and applied physics from Cornell University. He said he enrolled in Fordham University School of Law after realizing he did not want to “spend my life in the sub basement of some building doing experiments.”
After law school, Curry became a general litigation associate with Cravath, where he took his first pro bono case, a matter involving a Sing Sing inmate complaining of a civil rights violation.
Five years later, in 1986, he joined Fitzpatrick and was made partner in 1988. As an intellectual property practitioner, Curry has represented Genzyme, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Columbia University. He has been lead counsel for IBM in litigations involving technologies such as local area networks, e-commerce, client/server systems and point of sale devices. He also provides general counselling on intellectual property matters.
Curry has dabbled in pro bono throughout his career, often tapping into his specialty by representing artists and authors through the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (VLA) and low-income entrepreneurs through Legal Aid’s Community Development Program.
“Artists have a lot of intellectual property issues,” Curry said. “Designers, people putting together websites, people trying to start their own businesses quite often have copyright issues and quite often have trademark issues.”
David and Jeanie Stiles, authors who specialize in how-to books on building tree houses, found Curry through the Author’s Guild when they had a copyright issue over one of David’s illustrations.
“It was David fighting Goliath,” David Stiles said.
With Curry representing them for two years pro bono, a favorable settlement was reached, the Stiles said.
“We don’t make a lot of money and we knew we didn’t have a chance without a firm behind us,” Jeanie Stiles said. “We worked with him very closely and cannot say enough about how he worked with us. He was very objective and did research to make sure we were in the right. He is just a fair, thoughtful, intelligent person.”