In a Dark Hour, a Bright Moment for US Pro Bono

by Tony Perez Cassino – Pro Bono Counsel – Milbank
Thursday, 4 February 2021 08:09 GMT

Most of us want to forget the year 2020, but in some respects it may be one of the legal profession’s finest moments. COVID-19 disproportionally impacted low-income and minority communities in many ways, especially with regard to unemployment and health care. On top of that, there is a long overdue debate raging in the United States around racial justice. In response to these tragic events, many law firms have helped to develop new programmes and shifted their pro bono focus towards addressing these issues almost overnight. 

The legal profession recognised early in the pandemic that small businesses, especially those owned by women and minorities, would need all the help they could get if they were to have a shot at surviving a shutdown. Beginning in March, dozens of law firms, led by Kirkland & Ellis, Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, partnered with pro bono programmes around the country to create brief advice clinics for small businesses. Thousands of lawyers immediately signed up to help small businesses apply for federal funding under the CARES Act and to provide legal assistance with leases, employment, contracts and debt restructuring. Law firms also focused on ways to help low-income individuals dealing with the loss of jobs. For example, in New York, Milbank and a number of other firms partnered with a programme called Mobilization for Justice to help individuals to apply for $1,200 stimulus payments from the federal government.

Just as the pro bono community was catching its collective breath from dealing with the effects of the pandemic, the country erupted in protests following a number of disturbing videos of shootings by the police of unarmed black people. Addressing racial justice issues is not new for the law firm pro bono community, but there was a recognition that more needs to be done. In early June, the Law Firm Anti-Racism Alliance was created with the leadership of Skadden and about a dozen other law firms. Its mission is to “amplify the voices of communities and individuals oppressed by racism, to use the law as a vehicle for change that benefits communities of color and to promote racial equality in the law and in government institutions”. Since its creation, over 200 law firms have joined and plans are in the works for second summit where law firms will identify concrete ways to address these issues.

What makes all of these efforts so noteworthy is that the legal profession is also dealing with its own challenges relating to work and home in a remote environment. In addition, lawyers have also continued to help people with more traditional pro bono needs such as immigration, family law, housing, civil rights, and non-profit law issues. It has been a difficult year with so many unique challenges and uncertainty, but as it has done so many times before, the legal profession is finding new ways to help others and address some of the systemic issues that have vexed our country for years.

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