How Holland & Knight Partner Helped Death Row Inmate at SCOTUS

Feb. 27, 2017, 7:37 PM

Not every Big Law partner can spend as much time looking for death row inmates who need representation as they do developing their base of corporate clientele.

But that’s the beauty and rarity of Holland & Knight’s Sam Spital’s practice, who last week surfaced in the news when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a victory to one of his pro bono clients — Texas death row inmate Duane Buck.

“The Buck case decided earlier today by the Supreme Court and which will be front page tomorrow was won by the efforts of, inter alia, our own Sam Spital,” Chris Kelly, a Holland & Knight partner wrote, in an email sent around the firm. “It’s an important case, a great win....”

Based in New York, Spital, 39, has a bio that lists him as a member in Holland & Knight’s Litigation Group and in the firmwide Community Services Team. His practice focuses on complex appeals, and so he represents energy companies, foreign sovereigns and corporate clients on the one hand, and death row inmates and other indigent clients on the other.

“They are very different [types of clients] but I think that there are also advantages to doing both,” said Spital,adding, “One thing that’s been helpful within the firm is talking to partners ... when you work primarily on capital cases, sometimes the issues that will be obvious to you may not be to other people.”

An added benefit of having a pro bono-focused lawyer is that the firm gets a marketing boost for its brand every time Spital’s name surfaces in the news.

“It’s helpful for big firms to be involved in big Supreme Court cases from a recruitment perspective,” he said, adding, “Maybe there are law students who are interested.”

Spital said that maintaining a high-profile pro bono practice takes work, and he has to hustle to get his clients sometimes.

For example, Spital said he only got a seat at the counsel’s table representing Duane Buck because he took initiative. Back in 2014, he called Christina Swarns, Buck’s main counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, to ask if he could join the case. Swarns said yes, and Spital wound up helping with the briefs.

Buck was convicted of murdering his former girlfriend and another man in 1995 and sentenced to death. He tried to appeal his death sentence, based partly on the grounds that his own defense attorney had called a witness who testified that Buck, as an African-American, was statistically more likely to commit violent acts in the future. Chief Justice John Roberts said he had demonstrated “ineffective assistance of counsel.”

Writing for the majority in a 6-2 opinion, Roberts noted: “Our holding on prejudice makes clear that Buck may have been sentenced to death in part because of his race. As an initial matter, this is a disturbing departure from a basic premise of our criminal justice system: Our law punishes people for what they do, not who they are.”

It marked the first time in his career that Spital had a case that landed in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, and Spital said he was elated to have worked on a case that helps reinforce the idea that race should not play a role in criminal sentences.

Taking pro bono cases as a way to recruit talented law students to work at a law firm is standard practice at many Big Law firms. But such cases require resources and management, as Big Law Business detailed last year in a profile of Brian Stolarz, a former K&L Gates lawyer, who represented a death row inmate on a pro bono basis. According to Stolarz, K&L Gates assigned him the pro bono capital case, but did not provide the support or billing leeway necessary to work on the case.

Spital, who said he’s a non-equity partner, had only positive things to say about pro bono work: It puts young lawyers in the courtroom more quickly and allows them to take on great responsibility; it forces them to learn how to talk to all types of people.

“It’s not necessarily an economic loss for the firm,” he said, “The firm recognizes that there are benefits to having someone who is involved in both worlds.”

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