Big firms’ pro bono work knows no borders

BALTIMORE (AP) — It’s a big world, and it takes a big firm to help people negotiate the international legal system.

And for many large U.S. firms, expanding their pro bono efforts to the global community has become just another aspect of the practice.

At Miles & Stockbridge P.C., international pro bono work ranges from assisting foreign citizens in the U.S. to helping Americans who find themselves in legal predicaments overseas, said Stephen J. Cullen, a principal at the firm.

“Say you’re a parent in Bolivia, and you have an international family matter in America — your annual salary might be the equivalent of $4,000,” he said. “To people from poorer countries, that’s an impossibility (to pay for a U.S. lawyer).”

Lawyers for several other large firms have turned their attention to the world of international pro bono by focusing on human rights abuses, diving into research for petitions to the United Nations or collaborating with nongovernmental organizations to combat crimes against women and children in conflict areas.

Other firms work directly with international clients, assisting refugees with immigrant visas or working on intellectual property law in the developing world.

Miles & Stockbridge’s international cases often involve issues like child custody, adoptions gone wrong, elder abuse or guardianship, Cullen said.

Attorneys at the firm are in the process of representing 27 members of the U.S. military whose children are in Japan, he said. This type of case can occur when a service member’s spouse is a foreign citizen who takes the couple’s children back to the spouse’s home country and doesn’t return, Cullen said. Local laws can further complicate the situation — in Japan, for example, joint custody is not recognized, he said.

Handling several dozen of these cases requires a large number of resources that most small firms simply don’t have access to, said Cullen, who works out of Miles & Stockbridge’s Baltimore and Washington offices.

“The costs are astronomical. I think there is an expectation that big firms share some of their resources, because they can,” he said. “We do it because it’s very important that we’re part of the community and that people get a fair shot at the justice system.”

A 2012 survey conducted by Los Angeles-based firm Latham & Watkins for the Pro Bono Institute suggests more attorneys have been dedicating their pro bono hours to international work recently. The study examined global pro bono efforts in 71 different jurisdictions, up from 11 jurisdictions in a similar 2005 survey.

According to the study, there are pro bono opportunities on every continent, and for some lawyers, reaching clients across the globe has become easier with technological advances.

Sana M. Din, an associate with Ballard Spahr LLP in Baltimore, recently worked on an international pro bono initiative that paired Ballard attorneys with law school students to help Afghan and Iraqi refugees who assisted the American military resettle in the U.S.

Through Skype and conference calls, Din and the three students she worked with helped their client, who was located in Afghanistan, secure a Special Immigrant Visa to live in the U.S.

“We assisted him in the interview process, after which his resettlement application was accepted,” she said. “His life was in danger, and we helped him better explain his story and where he was coming from.”

In another Ballard pro bono project, Din assisted with research on human rights law and humanitarian law for an informational packet on women’s rights in Sudan. The initiative, a project of the firm’s Ballard Women affinity group, involved about 25 female attorneys from Ballard’s offices across the country, Din said.

“This part of the project focused on Darfur and asked us to take on several research topics, to summarize the conflict and touch on different issues and how international law can be applied,” she said.

The firm’s goal was to assist an NGO in providing legal assistance to women and children who have been subjected to civil rights violations in conflict areas, she said.

Other large firms also focus on human rights in their global pro bono initiatives, and many contribute via research efforts. Julie Ben-Zev, an associate at DLA Piper’s Baltimore office, helped draft a Petition for Relief to the United Nations for human rights abuses related to North Korea’s prison system, which was described as akin to a collection of death camps. The petition resulted in the U.N.’s launching an investigation into the system last year, Ben-Zev said.

Attorneys involved with DLA Piper’s “New Perimeter” global pro bono initiative have worked on projects in jurisdictions across the world since the program’s inception in 2005, and Ben-Zev said the firm is open to attorneys’ suggestions for future pro bono cases.

Venable LLC, which has offices across the country, including in Baltimore and Washington, takes international pro bono cases related to patents and intellectual property in the developing world. Venable works with Public Interest Intellectual Property Advisers, or PIIPA, an organization co-founded by Venable partner Michael Gollin that connects intellectual property and trademark attorneys with potential clients.

“We have patent attorneys currently working with an inventor in Guatemala on filing a patent for a wind turbine,” said Seth Rosenthal, Venable’s pro bono coordinator. “Others routinely make presentations to international groups interested in creating and protecting IP in the developing world.”

Although their clients are often located thousands of miles away, many attorneys who work on international pro bono projects see their efforts as another way to maintain ties to the broader community.

Cullen, who moved to the U.S. from Scotland several decades ago, said he was motivated by helping clients who would have received legal aid from the government in his native country for their family law cases, but do not receive help here. By drawing from a network of connections with legal expertise across the globe, he said, the firm is able to assist a much greater number of people.

“My firm’s position is, that’s part of doing business in the community,” Cullen said.

 

 

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