Todd Norbitz seized the chance to transform an informal commitment to pro bono into an organized and effective program when Foley & Lardner absorbed 12-attorney boutique Friedman, Wang & Bleiberg to form its New York office in 2004.
Norbitz, who had been a partner at Friedman Wang, reached out to pro bono clients and contacted public interest groups.
“I really saw this as a wonderful opportunity to broaden our commitment and deepen our platform to work in the pro bono area in New York,” he said.
Norbitz became chair of the New York office’s pro bono committee and a member of the firmwide committee. The New York office’s pro bono hours have grown from 400 in 2005 when the firm had 12 lawyers to more than 3,000 hours last year with 39 lawyers, Norbitz said.
Although there is no requirement to work pro bono, the majority of the firm’s lawyers in New York are handling cases, receiving billable hour credit, said Norbitz, who himself has contributed nearly 1,200 hours from 2005 through last year, including 300 hours in 2011.
That doesn’t include assigning and coordinating pro bono cases, which he estimates to be another 300 hours a year.
“I personally feel it’s a responsibility of an attorney,” Norbitz said. “We’re officers of the court and I do think we owe a responsibility to others to use that license” to represent people in need.
Norbitz said he is motivated only by knowing “how wonderful it feels to help another person. I feel privileged to have a law degree and the tools to be able to help.”
At Foley, Norbitz focuses on general commercial litigation, representing manufacturers, real estate firms and energy businesses in disputes over contracts, labor and employment, insurance coverage or intellectual property, among other issues. His work routinely brings him into court, and he handles mediations and arbitrations.
He also handles a good deal of work around a construction practice, acting as counsel to property owners, developers or contractors in corporate deals or disputes over delays, compensation and other issues.
One way Norbitz has persuaded his colleagues to take on pro bono is by encouraging them to seek out matters they’re most passionate about.
“Sometimes, all it takes is getting someone started,” Norbitz said. “When you take the time to understand what someone is interested in, it becomes a lot easier to encourage them to participate. I sort of took up the responsibility of marrying those interests and finding the right nonprofit providers.”
For example, Norbitz encouraged Yonaton Aronoff, special counsel at Foley, to find pro bono opportunities related to his interests in animals rights. As a result, Aronoff has represented New York Animal Care & Control for several years and associate Adam Pence and others have joined the team.
In its letter nominating Norbitz for this award, Foley & Lardner, which has about 900 attorneys nationwide, credited him for developing and maintaining 90 percent of the relationships with the groups who refer pro bono to the New York office, including inMotion, which serves women and children victims of domestic violence; ReServe, a nonprofit that matches older adults with organizations for part-time stipend service work, and the Refugee Assistance Project of the City Bar Justice Center.
Foley lawyers in New York have handled 10 clients referred by Bet Tzedek, who survived Nazi occupation, file for pension benefits from Germany.
Norbitz, 56, said in the past 15 months he worked on 11 pro bono matters. Among the cases he and his colleagues are handling are representing a disabled child in securing funding from New York City to attend a special needs school; working on an amicus brief on behalf of the Innocence Project in a case where a conviction was overturned; helping a nonprofit in corporate work and litigation; and a post-conviction death penalty case in Florida.
Norbitz also has developed a pro bono asylum practice group, made up of about 14 Foley lawyers, including Norbitz, who take cases referred by the New York City Bar’s Refugee Assistance Project. The firm’s clients include individuals from Honduras, Myanmar, Gambia and Columbia who have been persecuted in their home countries or fear abuse based on their religion, race, political opinion, social group or other reasons.
In the last two years, Foley attorneys have taken on nine asylum matters, including five in which clients were eventually granted asylum.
“A pro bono client is exactly like a commercial client,” Norbitz said. “And if you have to be in court for a pro bono client, then it’s no different if you have to show up in court for Microsoft. Invariably, a lawyer will walk into my office and will say, ‘hands down, that pro bono case was the most important case I worked on this year.’”
Norbitz, a member of the litigation department’s training committee, also enjoys the mentoring aspect of pro bono work.
“In a pro bono setting you have the opportunity and latitude for younger lawyers to increasingly take the lead,” he said.
Jennifer Kim, director of the city bar’s Refugee Assistance Project, said that in his mentoring role Norbitz strategizes with other attorneys on the asylum cases, sits in on meetings and helps clients prepare for hearings. “In comparison to perhaps some other firms, Todd is extremely involved in each of the cases as a supervising partner,” she said.
Kim said that sometimes associates stop taking cases when they have met their pro bono quota. But not so at Foley.
“We have Foley attorneys who finish one case and they pick up another,” she said. “It helps to build institutional knowledge within the firm. I think Todd has been instrumental in that.”
Mary Bleiberg, president of ReServe, said Norbitz has been the lead attorney for their cases. For instance, she said Norbitz and other Foley attorneys drafted an affiliate agreement between ReServe and nonprofits in other cities that plan to operate a ReServe program, allowing it to expand nationally.
When ReServe and New York City were sued by a former participant, Norbitz and other lawyers handled their defense. The Foley team settled the matter in terms that ReServe found to be favorable. “He oversaw the strategy of how to do it and what to do,” said Bleiberg.
“He really gets the value of pro bono work from both the perspective of the clients and the lawyers in the firms, and that’s unusual because, for a lot of firms, it’s really just window dressing and marketing, or some doing it under pressure,” said Bleiberg. “I don’t think that’s the case with him. I think he sincerely believes this is part and parcel of the work of a lawyer.”
Before graduating from Columbia Law School in 1990, Norbitz was an NBC News producer, making documentaries.
“I was exposed to a lot of different situations where people were generally in need,” he said, adding he frequently interacted with public interest lawyers in his former career. “I saw first hand how incredibly important their contributions were.”