Harlene Katzman, the Pro Bono Counsel and Director at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, sees her position as a key factor in helping the firm excel at pro bono work – but also as an important sign of the times.
“Professionalization of law firm pro bono programs is a continuing trend,” she says. “The Firm’s pro bono practice is managed the same way every other practice is managed, with proper training and supervision, identification of appropriate engagements, development of best practices, handling of ethical concerns and potential conflicts, and attention to risk management, all overseen by a lawyer who has the ability to think strategically about it.”
Leading the efforts to encourage and support the professionalization of pro bono is the Association of Pro Bono Counsel (APBCo), an organization dedicated to the support and professional development of full time pro bono counsel and coordinators at law firms. Harlene is an APBCo officer and board member, as a result of which she recently found herself meeting with Vice President Joe Biden and White House staff members. The Vice President invited the APBCo Board to Washington on Sept. 19 to discuss access to justice issues and the role that pro bono counsel at law firms play in the delivery of legal services to the poor.
In Harlene’s view, there is a clear link between APBCo’s recent growth and the potential impact of law firm pro bono programs. “The fact that law firms collaborate with each other and share best practices elevates all of our pro bono programs in terms of both quality and quantity, and improves the profession as a whole,” she said. “The more firms that have well-managed pro bono programs, the more we will be able to work with each other and with our legal services and bar association partners to bridge the enormous gap in meeting the legal services needs of our communities.”
“I tap into a huge body of knowledge about how to effectively manage the pro bono program at my firm through APBCo,” she added.
She has used that knowledge to good advantage in her current role. Last year, Simpson Thacher attorneys provided more than 73,000 hours of pro bono service, across a wide range of legal areas. That variety is one of the firm’s strengths, Harlene said. “Simpson Thacher has such a deep bench in terms of pro bono experience that an attorney can walk into my office and suggest almost any type of pro bono work, and we can turn it into a reality.”
At the same time, the firm has built up specialized expertise in a number of areas of pro bono, including immigration, education and advising nonprofits. “Building our in-house expertise in these and other areas has been crucial to our success. In this way, we don’t have to rely as heavily on the day to day mentoring of the legal services attorneys, freeing up their time to recruit and train pro bono volunteers from new firms,” she noted.
Harlene came to her current position after serving as Dean of the Center for Public Interest Law at Columbia Law School, a role made easier by the fact that “most students come into law school with a strong desire to help people and change the world and more time on their hands than law firm attorneys,” she said.
“Coming to a law firm was challenging because I had to use different strategies to motivate people,” she noted. “For attorneys to be engaged in pro bono work in an ongoing way, it has to be personally meaningful to them. Maybe the meaning is found in skills development, but more often it’s a personal connection to an issue or a client group or a community. But law firm lawyers face competing time pressures in their billable practices, and the challenge lies in finding meaningful, appropriate opportunities that can be balanced with paying client work.”
For Harlene, that personal connection is to Sanctuary for Families, a New York nonprofit that works with domestic violence victims, sex trafficking victims, and their children. She’s been on Sanctuary’s Legal Advisory Committee for 12 years, and has taken numerous pro bono clients from the group since joining Simpson Thacher. In September, Sanctuary awarded Harlene its 2012 Abely Pro Bono Achievement Award.
“This work has been so meaningful to me,” she said. “My clients are often single mothers with children the same age as my own 6-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter. But their lives are lived in a perpetual state of chaos and fear. Representing these amazing women, who have struggled to lift themselves out of poverty and break free from violence, has been humbling, eye-opening, and awe-inspiring. Not only has it changed my personal view of people and the world we live in, it has changed the way I see myself professionally - not just as someone who can manage a practice and motivate others, but as someone who can be a powerful advocate. That’s been probably the most meaningful thing that’s happened to me professionally.”