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Pro Bono Innovators 2022 Honoree White & Case

Nov. 2, 2022, 9:00 AM

Your firm’s key matters included winning a $4.2 billion settlement in the New Yorkers for Students’ Educational Rights v. State of New York  case, in collaboration with the nonprofit Education Law Center and Morgan Lewis. You also represented families in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on behalf of children killed in a juvenile detention center fire in Venezuela, working with the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice. How did your firm strategize on how to approach these matters? 

White & Case has spent decades developing a deep pool of litigators with unmatched experience on some of the highest profile matters in jurisdictions around the world, as well as diverse perspectives on how to approach these matters and resolve the complex issues they present.  We likewise have invested years building important relationships with nonprofits and clearinghouses, such as the ACLU, Education Law Center, and the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice (Vance Center).

In both matters, we tapped into our talent pool to construct teams of highly motivated lawyers with the skills and experience needed. We then executed using best practices of matter management and deployed creative thinking to develop and implement what proved to be highly successful case strategies. Purposefully staffing experienced lawyers from prior engagements helped drive legal strategy formation in these cases, while also providing support and guidance to newer team members. 

What were the most innovative aspects of these matters in your view? And who took the lead on driving innovation with the work? 

The [New Yorkers for Students’ Educational Rights] team innovated by finding creative ways to expedite the schedule and keep pressure on [New York state]. The team accelerated events by filing a preliminary injunction two years into litigation to challenge Covid-related budget cuts that hurt students. Winning that injunction forced the state of New York to provide immediate relief to school districts and reverse its budget cuts. It also brought the state to the negotiating table quickly.

We faced numerous challenges with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights case, which involved the 2005 deaths of multiple children in a fire at a youth detention facility in rural Venezuela. The jurisdiction was difficult, especially when investigating events that occurred years before we became involved.

 We had to be innovative in identifying and procuring evidence, finding and speaking to witnesses, and monitoring the status of various local proceedings.  The support of our pro bono partners, the Vance Center and the Observatorio Venezolano de Prisiones, was invaluable.

Tell us more about the impact of the matters on the local, national, and/or global level. 

The [New Yorkers for Students’ Educational Rights] settlement ensures that students in New York get the education they need to become successful participants in our global society. They will now receive appropriate support, technology, and funding. Vitally, the settlement serves as a strong precedent. Courts, legislatures, state governments, and education advocates will now look to New York for educational models and approaches to ensure education adequacy and funding. 

In the IACHR case, we took a strategic approach to damages to ensure the biggest impact for the victims, and advance structural reforms to make detention facilities safer throughout Venezuela and Latin America. The damages we won required Venezuela to introduce major reforms in detention centers nationwide, including a mandatory fire-safety protocol.  These reforms serve as an example of the standard of care that states should provide at detention facilities across the region, where in certain jurisdictions, basic protections have lagged.

Why do you think your team achieved successful results? 

We achieved success in NYSER thanks to our outside-the-box approach to the litigation and our dedication. Associates worked around the clock for 48 hours to prepare and file the emergency preliminary injunction. White & Case’s willingness to allow NYSER team members at times to exclusively focus on the litigation meant that associates could devote the time and energy needed to help New York’s kids. 

We also took inspiration from our clients, the victims in the IACHR case, who had waited 15 years for justice.  Finally, multiple family members could appear before the justices of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to tell their stories, describe their losses, and explain how their lives had been shattered by the fire.  Shortly thereafter, they were at last awarded some compensation for their profound loss, and found comfort in seeing the court order reforms to protect other children as well.

Take us back to the time the matters were resolved. What did you do to celebrate?  

The NYSER case was resolved at the height of the pandemic, so unfortunately we were limited to a Zoom party with our client and Education Law Center counterparts. But given that a big part of the funding will be used to provide increased resources for remote education in a post-pandemic world, it seemed fitting that our celebrations too would take advantage of this now-necessary resource.

Regarding the Venezuela case, our greatest joy and celebration upon receiving the positive order was being able to share the news with the victims’ family members.  Experiencing that with them, after they had been waiting so many years to achieve some sense of justice, and with our partner organizations, the Vance Center and the Observatorio Venezolano de Prisiones, with whom we had collaborated for almost seven years, was a wonderful moment for the team.

Responses provided by White & Case partner Greg Starner; Michael-Anthony Jaoude, lead associate for the NYSER case; partner Rafael Llano; and John Dalebroux, lead associate for the IACHR case.

—With assistance from Kibkabe Araya.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lisa Helem at lhelem@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: MP McQueen at mmcqueen@bloombergindustry.com; Lisa Helem at lhelem@bloombergindustry.com