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Pro Bono Law Firm of the Year 2013: Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe

The inaugural award for Pro Bono Law Firm of the Year is presented to Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe. In deciding the winner, we focused on a number of factors including the percentage of the firm’s total billed hours dedicated to this work, the steps taken to institutionalise pro bono, the percentage of participation throughout all levels of the firm and the firm’s proudest moment of 2012. Orrick stood out in the survey for its “tremendous contribution” and “forward-thinking” practice. In an exclusive interview with the coordinator of Orrick’s practice Rene Kathawala, Who’s Who Legal finds out what it takes to run a “world-class” pro bono group.

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“If somebody had told me at law school that I would still be working in private practice, I would never have believed them”, Rene Kathawala, full-time pro bono counsel at Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe tells April French of Who’s Who Legal. “I was always interested in public interest work and I joined Orrick thinking I would later move on. I never thought that firms might consider hiring a full-time pro bono person; it marks a great change in the culture of pro bono within the legal profession”.

An associate in the labour and employment practice of Orrick from 1996 to 2004, Kathawala was responsible for initiating a formal pro bono programme in the New York office. “It was through this work that I became known within the office and by the firm’s former CEO as the pro bono contact”. In 2004, he left the firm to clerk for the Honourable Leo Glasser, a federal judge. One year later, after discussions with Orrick’s management, he returned to manage the pro bono programme on a full-time basis.

Since then, his days have been spent institutionalising the practice within the firm’s culture. He explains, “the challenge is getting those within the firm at all levels to truly ‘buy in’ to the concept of pro bono”. Participation is a challenge which needs to be worked on “consistently” to overcome lawyers’ perceptions that they might not be able to fit pro bono into their work schedule. “It is also a matter of ensuring the programme is as credible as any other practice group,” he adds. To achieve this each office has a nominal pro bono partner and the firm sets a target of 20 hours of pro bono work per lawyer per year in the hopes of exceeding this goal.

One of the joys of Kathawala’s position is that he still remains very involved in legal practice, alongside his other duties of ensuring the programme operates smoothly and efficiently, the right matters are taken on and projects are properly staffed by partners. Ensuring the “proper supervision of matters is a critical element,” insists Kathawala. “We need partners to supervise matters as they would billable work”. Yet achieving partner involvement is not without its difficulties; “partners at all firms are under incredible strain to generate business – pro bono is not top of their list”. Leading from above, all of the executive committee members at Orrick have pledged to achieve the pro bono goal and one member has made it her personal mission to increase partner involvement. This level of commitment sends a clear message to the firm that pro bono participation is favourably looked upon. Kathawala admits “it makes it much easier to achieve involvement with support from leadership”. The firm has set a target of attaining 20 hours of pro bono per year from at least 65 per cent of partners.

One of the goals of Orrick’s pro bono practice is to be as efficient as possible. “The need for legal services is tremendous; the more efficient the firm can be the more clients we can serve and the bigger the impact we can make in our communities”. It is in this way that Kathawala believes the success of a pro bono practice ought to be measured, “numbers can be misleading. A better metric is to look at the number of clients the firm has assisted and the overall impact on the clients’ lives”. Taking this one step further, Kathawala explains that Orrick also tries to take on those clients who fall under the radar. “Every firm wants to represent the clients in high-profile  cases, very often there are bids for these cases and if we do not represent them someone else will, but stepping in where no other firm will – that is the work to be particularly proud of”.

Part of Kathawala’s vision when building the practice was to find meaningful projects that play to the firm’s strengths - either learned or already existing expertise – and nowhere is this more apparent than in the impact finance practice. Building on the experience of its lawyers in financing and microfinancing transactions, Orrick saw a unique opportunity to assist companies making investments intended to create positive impact beyond their financial return and is one of the few firms operating in this space. By formalising the team, Kathawala feels it provides a “unique opportunity to get transactional lawyers involved as well as providing opportunities for lawyers from different offices, even different continents, to work together”. Examples of the team’s work include supporting the Calvert Foundation that underwrote an innovative medical credit fund providing debt capital to health clinics in sub-Saharan Africa. “We have truly made a mark in this space,” says Kathawala.

Establishing a successful pro bono practice is not without its difficulties as Kathawala explains “we are effectively running a not-for-profit organisation out of a for-profit company and naturally this can create tensions. However at Orrick, the net benefit of pro bono for the firm is definitely recognised”. Kathawala adds that “pro bono is also important for business development” owing to the opportunities it can create for the firm to work alongside its corporate clients. Even more persuasive is the view that pro bono is becoming a necessary element to being hired. The general counsel of one of Orrick’s clients in a recent address at a pro bono conference said “we are never going to hire a firm solely on their pro bono work but we would not even consider a firm who did not have an impactful pro bono practice”.

Further difficulties he identifies are matching lawyers’ interest in helping particular sections of society with access to those clients. Kathawala recounts when the firm first began looking into aiding veterans and soon realised that they needed to develop a programme, ultimately partnering with the New York City Bar Association’s City Bar Justice Center, which enabled the clients to first be at a point where they could receive legal services.

Certain jurisdictions also present complications. While in the US and the UK pro bono is entrenched in society, in other parts of Europe and Asia there is more cultural resistance. Kathawala references some of the international organisations who are advocating pro bono in these regions but admits it “will not happen overnight”.

Orrick prides itself on focusing on all the important qualities of a law firm and recognises that pro bono clients should be valued like any other client. Kathawala says “one of the steps we have taken to institutionalise the practice of pro bono is to ensure that lawyers develop a close relationship with pro bono clients so that the work is not just ad hoc”.

On the debate of whether pro bono participation ought to be mandatory or not, Kathawala says “honestly, I don’t think it should be”. He adds “at Orrick we have built a culture where people want to participate and that makes for better quality of work”. However, he does recognise that there is movement towards a more formal recognition of pro bono participation and cites the recent announcement by New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman that attorneys must report their pro bono hours every two years when they re-file their attorney registration. Similarly, Kathawala feels that while signing up to pro bono organisations might not motivate people individually; it “allows the firm to set a benchmark to judge its overall performance”. 

The programme at Orrick has gone from strength to strength over the past decade and Kathawala comments “everything has fallen into place. The structuring work is complete; our focus now is on ensuring as broad participation as possible, working efficiently and continuing to make the greatest impact”.

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