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A Pro Bono Groundswell After Trump’s Immigration Order (Perspective)

Feb. 28, 2017, 4:21 PM

Editor’s Note: The author of this post is director of pro bono activities at Mayer Brown.

Hundreds of lawyers flocked to international airports to help those who had been detained upon arrival and were being threatened with deportation. Law firms obtained temporary restraining orders against the ban, filed habeas petitions on behalf of individuals who were being held at airports by Customs & Border Protection, and represented legal permanent residents and visa holders who were trapped overseas, including some needing to enter the United States for life saving medical treatment. The work continues, with one law firm helping to track those who were impacted by the travel ban.

Less visible, but equally as inspiring, has been the groundswell of Big Law lawyers raising their hands to take on pro bono work to help those in vulnerable and low-income communities. After the immigration executive orders were issued, there was a significant increase in the number of lawyers volunteering to take on asylum cases, help immigrant victims of domestic violence and crime, and participate in clinics to assist undocumented immigrants who may be eligible to obtain legal status and legal permanent residents who are eligible for citizenship. At the beginning of February, the National Immigrant Justice Center held an asylum training attended by more than 130 Chicago lawyers. And there are new efforts springing up to provide pro bono representation to undocumented immigrants who are detained in workplace raids and other actions. As one colleague noted during a conversation about the post-election uptick in volunteerism, perhaps President Trump has made America great again.

Demonstrators hold signs and march during the “Free The People Immigration March” in Los Angeles, California, U.S., on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2017. Photographer: Dania Maxwell/Bloomberg

But what some have called an unprecedented mobilization of Big Law lawyers is not particularly unprecedented. Similar efforts have occurred in the past, most recently to represent the flood of refugee children who were crossing the border from Central America fleeing escalating levels of gang violence, abuse, and grinding poverty, and who, under Obama Administration policies, faced the prospect of swift deportation but for the lawyers who stepped in to help.

So what motivates the legal profession to kick into high gear in the way we have seen over the past three weeks and during previous crises? For Latham & Watkins associate Kimberly Lucas — to whom I was connected by the firm’s public service counsel — it was the ability to engage in work that she is passionate about while using her legal skills to assist those in need. Kimberly – who is in the Real Estate Practice of Latham’s Finance Department and is a co-coordinator of the firm’s asylum work – spent the Saturday after the Executive Order was signed at JFK’s Terminal 7, helping people who were being detained upon arrival, as well as waiting family members and loved ones of those affected by the travel ban. She also helped to coordinate other Latham volunteers that weekend. “I heard about the uncertainty, difficulty, and chaos at the airports, and the urgent call for legal assistance, and I wanted to heed that call,” Kimberly noted.

Protesters wave American flags as bodega owners, workers and supporters demonstrate during a strike in New York, U.S., on Thursday, Feb. 2 2017. Photographer: Kholood Eid/ Bloomberg

Kimberly’s motivation for spending her weekend helping those in dire circumstances is not surprising. For all the talk of the training and skills development that pro bono can provide, a survey of Big Law associates, although admittedly unscientific, found that the number one reason attorneys do pro bono work is because it makes them feel good about being a lawyer. For many, crisis situations provide an opportunity to reconnect with the ideals of fighting for justice and equality that drove us to law school in the first place. While there are daily opportunities through pro bono work to help improve access to justice for the poor and disadvantaged, times of crisis work to galvanize the legal profession by providing a stark reminder of the unique role lawyers play in ensuring that vulnerable communities are protected from the abuse of government power, and unconstitutional, or sometimes just unwise, government policies.

As attention turns to other political issues, the furor surrounding the travel ban will likely fall from the spotlight. However, the need for pro bono work from passionate, committed lawyers will continue to increase. As legal service organizations strive to keep up with the rising demand, the moment is right to help those in need.