Three influential law firm attorneys committed to serving their community spoke to a room full of students about how law firm associates can get involved in pro bono work at a large law firm. Susan (Sue) Finegan is a nationally recognized pro bono leader. She is the Pro Bono Partner at Mintz Levin, and was driven to the law profession to help people. She has served as the lead counsel in a number of high profile litigation matters, such as the Trump administration’s travel ban and seeing through the passage of a Massachusetts restraining order law for sexual assault survivors. She current serves as co-chair of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission. The two other panelists, William (Rob) Roberts ’10 and Victoria (Tory) Hartmann ’17, are HLS alums who built a foundation for their pro bono work throughout their time at HLS. Roberts, who is an associate in the Litigation and Enforcement group at Ropes & Gray, participated in the Predatory Student Lending Clinic as a student. His current practice at Ropes focuses on complex commercial disputes, bankruptcy litigation, and Foreign Corrupt Practices Act compliance. He also serves as the family law team leader for the firm’s partnership with Dorchester House. Tory Hartmann is an alum of the Food Law and Policy Clinic. Now at WilmerHale, Hartmann advises public and private companies on an array of corporate matters, including strategic investments, cross-border outsourcing deals, and SEC filings. Each of the panelists spoke to the breadth of issues they have worked on in their pro bono portfolio, ranging from protecting Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), reuniting separated families, working with domestic abuse survivors and homeless women, to helping farmers and other individuals and entities providing food get established. The panelists described how their intentional efforts to get involved in pro bono work and their firm’s support of that work allowed them to frequently engage in public service opportunities.
Finegan emphasized that the three firms represented on the panel had a long history of commitment to the community and are strategic about hiring lawyers with special skills that can be helpful in serving the community: “I think a lot of these firms, and these three in particular, have decades long commitment to certain initiatives in the community of Boston and in other cities that we operate in. Even before pro bono was a defined thing, the founders of our firms were doing things in the community for free . . . There’s a real obligation as lawyers, [and] as professionals, to use [these special] skills in any way we can.”
Roberts agreed that law firms believe in doing meaningful pro bono work, stating that, “Firms are looking for these types of issues that make an impact.” Roberts recounted a year where he performed an impressive 1,100 hours of pro bono work, exceeding his billable hours. When asked about how the firm viewed this imbalance, he replied, “at the end of the day people see if you’re doing good work and they appreciate the work you’re doing whether it’s pro bono or billable.” The challenge, he said, is in maintaining organization and flexibility to bounce between different issues.
There can be tremendous leadership growth for associates to initiate a pro bono project and take the helms of leading a case. Finegan said that it is a great professional development opportunity for associates to be primarily responsible for someone’s well-being when leading a pro bono project, a chance that occurs less frequently in some of the firm’s bigger cases when the partners largely drive the work. The panelists encouraged students to get the experience and exposure of leading a project and driving a litigation strategy early on in one’s career.
Hartmann encouraged students who were planning to work in law firms, but have a strong inclination for public interest, to ask the firms up front about their pro bono work. She encouraged students to ask summer associates during interviews and meet and greet sessions about the kinds of pro bono projects they had worked on. “Everyone should have an answer,” she declared. She also encouraged students to ask if pro bono hours count the same as billable hours and to make sure the projects include challenging and substantive work. That way, she said, a student can tell how much a firm values their pro bono practice. Finegan highlighted that at Mintz Levin, “Our pro bono matters are just as important as our client matters, and in some ways, in my perspective more important because these are clients who would otherwise not get helped.”
Thank you to the Harvard Women’s Law Association for co-sponsoring the event.