As the oldest of nine children, each born less than a year apart, watching other people’s backs comes naturally to Nixon Peabody partner Daniel Hurteau.
“I didn’t come from a family that had a lot of money and I didn’t have a ton of opportunities,” said Hurteau, who grew up in a farm town of 235 nestled in the upper reaches of the Adirondack wilderness. “But I am extremely fortunate. I was able to become an attorney and get into a good firm. I think personally that we all need to give back, because there are people you can help with really a minimum effort.”
And give back he does.
He is part of a team working pro bono on a Louisiana death penalty case, regularly donates legal services for the arts (his wife is a former dancer and one of his children dances with the Miami City Ballet), took on the case of a mentally ill New Yorker entangled in a libel action, helped an elderly woman secure her house and was instrumental in setting up a pro bono partnership between Nixon Peabody’s 16 Albany attorneys and the in-house legal crew at General Electric. But that’s just a sample of the range and depth of Hurteau’s pro bono commitment.
Stacey Slater, pro bono partner at Nixon Peabody, said Hurteau is routinely a top contributor at a firm where public service is an expectation. She said Hurteau registered 184 hours of pro bono service in 2009, 253 in 2010 and 132 in 2011.
“Dan has made an incredible impact on the lives of people that are less fortunate through his pro bono leadership,” Slater said. “Dan is the pro bono partner for his local Albany office and has achieved 100 percent pro bono participation by developing pro bono initiatives, bringing in interesting opportunities and regularly going door to door to solicit participation.”
Last year, after the Albany office of Nixon Peabody was contacted by the counsel’s office at GE Global Research Center in nearby Niskayuna and asked to help create a pro bono partnership, Hurteau developed an initiative in conjunction with the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York. Legal Aid serves as the referral source while Nixon Peabody and GE provide lawyers for those who otherwise could not afford legal services.
“At the Global Research Center, almost all of the attorneys are patent lawyers,” said Hurteau, whose practice largely consists of complex commercial litigation. “They reached out to us because their general counsel wanted GE attorneys involved in pro bono work and they thought it would be helpful if they had attorneys who were experienced” in handling pro bono cases.
Since the partnership began, the team has collaborated—with in-house attorneys usually handling research and Nixon Peabody attorneys handling the rest—on about a dozen matters ranging from family law matters to evictions to estate planning to Social Security benefits and appeals.
“There is an incredible need out there,” Hurteau said. “It is nearly impossible for anyone making even a normal salary to afford an attorney, and there are people you can help with such minimum effort. You can help them achieve things that they could never, ever achieve on their own. As a profession, I think it is important that we try to reach all people, not just those who can afford us, and the only way we can do that is through pro bono work.”
Besides, he added, “it’s fun.”
“A lot of time I work for big companies on big issues and big matters, and it is kind of neat to go into city court and help somebody out with a landlord-tenant issue and keep a family of six in an apartment for two more months until they can get themselves organized and into a better situation rather than being thrown into the street.” Hurteau said. “That is rewarding.”
Hurteau, a commercial litigator, calls himself a “jack of all trades” when it comes to the types of cases he handles in his day job. In the last few years he has often supported Nixon Peabody’s health care team representing hospitals in construction, wage and hour, and other disputes. He also has represented manufacturers in product liability cases, and has handled breach of contract, trade secret, breach of fiduciary duty, non-compete and myriad other types of litigation.
After graduating from high school and leaving the family homestead in North Bangor, Hurteau ventured to what for him was a huge metropolis, Albany, and enrolled in Siena College in political science and pre-law. He went on to Albany Law School and then clerked for then-Justice D. Bruce “Pete” Crew of the Appellate Division, Third Department.
“The first pro bono case I did was while I was clerking with Pete,” Hurteau recalled.
Hurteau joined Nixon Peabody in Rochester in 1992. ”The first day I was there the head of the litigation department came in and put three pro bono cases on my desk and said, ‘You are expected to do these and this is what we do around here,’” Hurteau recalled. “And I’ve been doing them ever since.”
Hurteau moved back to the Albany area in 1994 when his wife took a position with the state tax department.
He chairs the pro bono committee of the Albany County Bar Association, works with charitable organizations, such as Big Brothers-Big Sisters and the Justice for All Campaign of the Legal Aid Society. Last year, he spent a week volunteering in Ecuador with his 16-year-old daughter, Alicia. Hurteau taught English to poor children under the One World Classrooms program. His daughter taught ballet.
“It was eye opening,” said Hurteau, 49. “You are in these poorly constructed huts with dirt floors, teaching kids who just can’t get enough of it. They are just so into school and wanting to learn. These are people who live in the middle of the forest and have nothing, just nothing.”
One of the pro bono clients Hurteau is assisting is a Brooklyn man, Peter Bertine, who struggles with mental illness.
“I am bipolar and have had some very serious manic episodes,” Bertine said. “The most recent was in 2008-09 and I was being treated improperly with the wrong medication and was completely out of my mind and sent a bunch of crazy emails about a neighbor I was horribly paranoid about. He is suing me for $10 million.”
Bertine said Hurteau’s pro bono assistance has helped put him back on an even keel.
“Dan has been an unbelievable knight in shining armor,” Bertine said. “Being bipolar leaves you in a depressed state or a manic state. I am back in balance and a major, major factor is Dan. The feeling of intense paranoia that I sometimes have is helped tremendously by having Dan take on my case and defend me and make me feel that I have someone looking out for me.”
Frank Penski, a partner in Nixon Peabody’s New York office who is spearheading the pro bono representation of a death penalty defendant, said Hurteau is his “right hand man” and spent two weeks of his own time going door to door in Louisiana to question jurors while looking into allegations of juror misconduct. ”There is just an altruistic nature about him,” Penski said.
Hurteau said everyone who has enjoyed success has an obligation to give back, and his pro bono commitment is “just a small way to do it.”