There are lessons to be learned from a firm that has spent years dedicated to addressing the needs of those who would not otherwise be able to afford legal services. Hinshaw & Culbertson, a Chicago-based firm with more than 500 attorneys in 23 offices across the United States, is on the PILI Pro Bono Recognition Roster, and is the 2013 recipient of the Chicago Legal Clinic’s Charles J. O’Laughlin Memorial Award. Behind institutional support and a culture of service, are individual trail blazers and champions. Josh Vincent, a partner in the Chicago office, and PILI Board Member, has been both for Hinshaw and has reflected with PILI on the process of building a meaningful pro bono program.
Hinshaw pro bono services started when Vincent took on four federal direct criminal appeals in 2002, following a rule change that allowed trial lawyers to withdraw at the time of appeal. Realizing there were many more appeals from criminal defendants than lawyers to take them on, Vincent began what can be an intimidating process of teaching himself where needed, watching court provided video tapes where available, and working on pro bono cases solo. After a couple years, Vincent connected the needs of the pro bono clients with the unique mentoring needs and enthusiasm of the incoming class of new lawyers at Hinshaw’s Chicago headquarters. The newly-hired lawyers were each assigned an appeal in August while waiting for their bar results. Working initially under Vincent’s supervision, and then under the supervision of partners in the firm’s Appellate Practice Group, the pro bono appeals allowed the new lawyers to gain practical experience in reading how real trials were conducted, issue identification, honing their research and writing skills, working directly with clients and presenting oral argument – typically the new attorney’s first significant court appearance. Attorneys traveled with Vincent to personally meet with clients located around the country, and came to experience first-hand the importance of every person getting access to a fair process. For many clients, the appeal, even if unsuccessful, was cathartic, because they came away feeling that they had a top-notch lawyer who got them the right to be heard.
The next evolution was to formalize the pro bono program at Hinshaw. The Executive Committee was tasked with the work, and PILI board members provided assistance by sharing their firms’ pro bono experiences, supplying templates on policies and more. Hinshaw embraced the process by adopting a Pro Bono Policy and establishing its Pro Bono Legal Services Committee (PBLSC) in 2008. Since that time, pro bono services have expanded from a focus on appellate cases to partnering with Cabrini Green Legal Aid (CGLA) in the preparation and presentation of clemency petitions, as well as support of the Life After Innocence (LAI) program. “There are many associates and junior partners who have now been with the firm for eight to nine years and for whom pro bono work was the first thing they did as a lawyer. As a result, pro bono work has evolved to become much more a part of the firm’s culture,” says Vincent.
Building trust with the client was one of the first lessons learned, and not having that relationship made stepping in as a pro bono attorney much more difficult at the beginning. According to Vincent, “a critical part of the experience, and one of the significant lessons learned, was that many criminal defendants have no in-person contact with their appellate lawyer. Many lawyers don’t take the time or cannot afford to do it, which creates a certain amount of distrust by the client, and results in difficulty getting clients to understand the importance of focusing on the key issues, as opposed to a kitchen-sink approach to the appeal. When that trust is absent, the relationship can break down. Clients will insist on including arguments that dilute the strength of their appeal, or they will ask for different counsel, or they elect to proceed on their own.” Another significant take-away from formalizing the pro bono process is that firms need to have a succession plan in place. Some cases may span years and associates working on cases may leave the firm. There is a need to anticipate how to fill the gap and accommodate other attorneys stepping in on pending matters. The next step for Hinshaw in its evolution of pro bono service will be to continue encouraging greater involvement by younger attorneys in taking on leadership roles, setting policies and procedures, and spreading the practices to offices across the country.
Driving a culture of service requires many behind the scenes champions committed to increasing access to justice. Hinshaw has many stars who are taking over where Vincent began over a decade ago. Kimberly Jansen, a partner at Hinshaw, has and continues to play a major role in the educational aspect of the pro bono experience, overseeing and mentoring young associates working on criminal cases. She assists new pro bono attorneys with their writing and confidence building, which plays a significant part in the opportunity for professional growth. Partner Scott Gilbert has put in considerable work with the LAI program and is filling an important role in the institutionalization of any pro bono firm program that of taking over as a next generation leader and go-to person for pro bono work opportunities. Leslie Richards-Yellen, the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer/Partner, is a key connector, using her personal network to expand pro bono opportunities with CGLA. Partners Dan Boho and Roy Pulvers, the chair and vice-chair of Hinshaw’s PBLSC, respectively, provide leadership that offers a pivotal next move for Hinshaw pro bono services. While located in Portland, Oregon, Pulvers has long demonstrated a commitment to the work being done by the Chicago office, and is poised to expand the PBLSC’s work throughout the country. The story of pro bono efforts at Hinshaw provides a model for other firms, and an example of how the efforts of one can lay the foundation for many leaders to emerge.