The pro bono commitment of Shearman & Sterling’s New York office ranges from clearing a man wrongly convicted of murder to assisting veterans in obtaining benefits to standing up for the rights of pizza delivery workers.
Shearman’s New York lawyers work closely with a variety of organizations that refer cases, such as the Legal Aid Society, City Bar Justice Center, Human Rights First, Lawyers Alliance for New York, Lawyers Without Borders, Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, inMotion and Sanctuary for Families. Those cases run the gamut, requiring an immense pro bono commitment.
The office’s 340 attorneys logged more than 27,000 hours each year from 2009 through 2011, including 27,865 last year, said Saralyn Cohen, pro bono counsel and director of pro bono, whose own hours each year total up to 200. By the end of last year, the office had about 300 open pro bono matters.
Although Shearman requires each of its lawyers in the United States to spend at least 25 hours on pro bono annually, the New York attorneys go far beyond the minimum. Cohen said more than 90 percent of the New York attorneys participated last year, averaging 64 pro bono hours per lawyer.
Partner Brian Polovoy said the dedication to pro bono permeates every part of the firm.
“There is a commitment from the top down to truly encourage pro bono and not simply as a recruiting device and not simply as a training device, but to be cognizant of our duty as lawyers to do pro bono,” Polovoy said.
For instance, the firm committed its staff and 2,954 hours to People v. Morillo, 7672/91, a Bronx case in which Shearman teamed up with the Legal Aid Society to overturn the murder conviction of a man who spent 20 years in prison before he was released in November.
“Shearman stood out to me not just in the caliber of attorneys, which frankly one kind of expects from some of these firms, but by the way they took this case very seriously,” said Elizabeth Felber, a supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society who worked with Shearman lawyers on Morillo.
Felber said Shearman’s legal team conducted an extensive investigation and obtained an admission from a single eyewitness that she had lied when she testified that from her fourth-floor apartment window in the Bronx she saw the defendant commit the crime.
The firm hired an investigator that located the witness. An associate at the time, Michael Haidas, gained the trust of the eyewitness and her son so she could be persuaded to recant her original story, Felber said. Another attorney, Melissa Godwin, made trips to the South Bronx to hunt down witnesses, and Godwin and Haidas several times visited the client incarcerated in a maximum-security prison in Stormville, Dutchess County, Felber said.
In another case referred by Legal Aid, Shearman lawyers committed lawyers “at all levels,” from junior associates to senior partners, to helping current and former workers of Domino’s Pizza who are suing owners and operators of franchise locations in a class action over alleged violations of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and New York’s Labor Law, according to Richard Blum, an attorney in Legal Aid’s employment law unit.
The clients claim the defendants paid less than the minimum wage, failed to pay overtime and failed to record all their work hours. Clients include low-income individuals who speak different languages, frequently move and don’t have working telephones, Blum said.
“What’s unusual is to see the lawyers who are used to dealing with corporate clients suddenly jumping in and really doing a lot of serious work with the clients,” Blum said.
When one of the Domino’s defendants filed bankruptcy papers, Shearman brought in their corporate bankruptcy lawyers, which Legal Aid doesn’t have, Blum said.
“They’re taking the lead into how to go through the bankruptcy process, but in a very collaborative way,” he said. “We’re full partners.”
David Crow, associate appellate counsel and pro bono program director for criminal appeals at Legal Aid, lauded the firm for its partner-to-associate dedication.
“We think of them as one of our go-to firms for difficult cases,” he said.
In all, Shearman has 16 pending cases referred by Legal Aid, Cohen said. Firm partner Stuart Baskin sits on Legal Aid’s board of directors, while partner Linda Rappaport is chair of the organization’s board of advisers.
Shearman’s New York attorneys also have committed to helping veterans obtain benefits.
“Their work is extraordinary,” said Carol Bockner, director of pro bono initiatives at the City Bar Justice Center who leads the Veterans Assistance Project.
The veterans project, which helps veterans and their families access disability pensions and compensation for service-connected injuries, partners with about 70 different law firms and in-house legal departments. About 120 Shearman attorneys have worked on 82 cases since the project started five years ago, the most of any firm, Bockner said.
“They’ve taken really quite a leadership role in veteran’s assistance in the city,” she said.
Bockner said the cases are extremely complex and labor-intensive, as attorneys need to connect veterans’ time in service with their injuries.
“It’s typical for us to get a decision on a complicated case in about two to three years,” Bockner said. “That’s what’s extraordinary to have so many cases, because it goes over such a long period of time.”
Terence Gilroy, a Shearman associate and former U.S. Army captain, has represented five clients through the project.
“There was absolutely a need for some of these guys and girls [to receive] legal representation” and to navigate the Veterans Administration system, Gilroy said.
Cohen, who has watched the firm’s pro bono commitment grow over time, said pro bono touches every practice group in the firm, engaging litigators and transactional attorneys.
“Everybody feels a part of it,” she said.
Cohen noted that associates today come into the firm having been exposed to pro bono and they just assume it is part of what they will do.
“I don’t have to teach or train. They just walk in the door expecting to do it. Their enthusiasm is contagious,” she said.
Shearman makes a concerted effort to sit down with groups like Legal Aid or the City Bar Justice Center, Cohen said, and ask , “Who is coming to your door that you have to say ‘No’ to, and wish you could say ‘Yes’?”
Not all firms will do employment or SSI disability cases and agencies don’t have the resources to help that clientele, she said. “We ask, ‘What is the unmet need? How do we fill that gap’”?
Cohen said Shearman likes to partner on projects with the agencies and in-house attorneys, more and more of whom are becoming active in pro bono.
“By working together we can get more deeply involved and handle even more cases,” she said.