Three Texas law firms that devoted a significant number of hours to immigration issues and helping people in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey are ranked among the top 100 firms listed in The American Lawyer’s 2018 Pro Bono Scorecard.
Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld did the most domestic pro bono work in 2017, landing in the 27th spot —well ahead of two other BigTex firms also on the list. Baker Botts came in 70th among 130 AmLaw 200 firms that reported pro bono information to The American Lawyer, and Vinson & Elkins took the 95th spot in the ranking for U.S. pro bono work.
Like firms around the country, the three Texas firms devoted pro bono time to issues stemming from Trump Administration policies, such as the travel ban on people from majority-Muslim countries, asylum cases and funding for the Legal Services Corp. But lawyers from the three firms also mobilized to provide legal assistance to people affected by Hurricane Harvey, which hit the Lone Star State in late August and resulted in massive flooding.
According to the Pro Bono report, Akin Gump’s U.S. lawyers averaged 93.5 hours of pro bono in 2017, and 61.4 percent of the firm’s lawyers devoted at least 20 hours to pro bono. Baker Botts U.S. lawyers put in an average of 49.6 pro bono hours in 2017 and 46.1 percent of the firm’s lawyers did at least 20 hours. At V&E, pro bono hours averaged 35.6 for the firm’s U.S. lawyers, and 37.3 percent of the firm’s lawyers did at least 20 pro bono hours.
The numbers for each of the three firms were close to numbers reported for each firm last year.
Jenner & Block repeated as the top large firm for U.S. pro bono work in 2017, and Dechert maintained its top ranking among large firms for international pro bono work, the annual Pro Bono Survey shows.
On a national level, Akin Gump was one of six firms that led a group of 200 national law firm leaders advocating in 2017 for continued funding of the Legal Services Corp. Congress ultimately maintained the previous year’s funding level, and Akin Gump also successfully lobbied to help secure an additional $15 million in funding for the LSC because of natural disasters.
Steven Schulman, who leads Akin Gump’s pro bono practice, said Texas lawyers devoted considerable hours in 2017 to immigration matters. The firm’s Texas lawyers also volunteered in a big way to help people with legal matters after Hurricane Harvey, which dumped 51 inches of water in Houston in late August, he said.
Harvey pro bono work also accounted for big pro bono hours at Baker Botts. Keri Brown, chair of Baker Botts’ Houston pro bono committee, said lawyers fielded legal questions at shelters and clinics and handled Federal Emergency Management Agency appeals for people who had flooded houses. Brown said the firm also filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston in support of a lawsuit filed by religious liberty group Becket to allow houses of worship to apply for FEMA funds
following a natural disaster. FEMA changed its policy after the suit was filed, allowing houses of worship to receive FEMA money.
Brown said Hurricane Harvey got more lawyers interested in pro bono work. “We had lawyers who don’t traditionally show up on the pro bono roll leaving me voicemails,” Brown said.
The natural disaster made it easier for lawyers to do pro bono work because some of the work involved volunteering at clinics, which is more predictable then handling a courtroom representation because there’s a start time and an end time.
The firm’s lawyers posted some successes on FEMA appeals, including one instance in which a lawyer obtained an additional grant of $15,000 for a client. “One of our lawyers
was so thrilled because he got an extra $2,500 for a client. …This was three months of rent for this client,” she said.
At V&E, pro bono counsel Ellyn Josef said the firm’s lawyers continued with typical pro bono work in 2017 but also responded to urgent and new needs. Early in 2017, lawyers mobilized to go to airports in the wake of the Trump Administration’s travel ban on people coming from majority-Muslim countries, Josef said. And they continued with work stemming from the cancellation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
“Then came disaster relief,” Josef said, noting that she is on the board of The Association of Pro Bono Counsel and helped coordinate a rapid-response model in Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
While the firm’s pro bono numbers were close to what the firm reported a year earlier—35.6 hours per lawyer in the 2017 pro bono report, compared with 38 hours in the report published in 2018—V&E lawyers assisted two-and-a-half times as many clients. “We were responding to a lot of urgent needs. We did a lot of work in a more clinic-style, triage kind of way,” she said.
That kind of rapid-response pro bono work continues this year as lawyers jump in to represent children or parents who were separated at the border after they entered the country unlawfully while seeking asylum. Lawyers from all three Texas firms are volunteering in that area.
The three BigTex firms are also on the Pro Bono Scorecard’s ranking for its international lawyers. Akin Gump was 34th among 64 firms on the list, with its international lawyers doing 19.5 hours in pro bono work on average, and 20.5 of the firm’s non-U.S. lawyers doing at least 20 hours. Baker Botts ranked 43rd with 15.2 pro bono hours on average and 15.5 percent of its international lawyers doing at least 20 hours of pro bono in 2017. V&E was in the 52nd spot, with lawyers doing 5.9 hours of pro bono work on average and 11.3 percent of its international lawyers putting in at least 20 hours of pro bono work.