'What We Do'

Why Brian Martin believes pro bono work benefits himself as much as his clients

Published in 2020 San Diego Super Lawyers magazine

By Andrew Engelson on March 30, 2020


In 1997, Brian D. Martin, a summer associate at Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, was being mentored by business litigator and appellate attorney Daniel G. Lamb. Since the early ’90s, Lamb had been working the same pro bono case, appealing the 1985 death penalty conviction of Paul Browning. He encouraged Martin to join the team. 

Pro bono work is about helping others, but Martin also found it personally rewarding. “I enjoyed working with a client who truly needed our help,” he says.

Then there was the experience he got.

As part of the death penalty appeal, Martin helped file a habeas corpus petition. “It’s one of the things in law school you think you might do, but as civil lawyers we don’t do anything like it,” he says. “It was fascinating work.”

Browning’s pro bono team eventually commissioned new DNA testing. “We had witnesses in the last day of the evidentiary hearing,” says Martin. “It was before a judge. … It was my first time taking a witness.”

When Brobeck folded in 2003, a victim of the dot-com bust, Martin moved to Pillsbury Winthrop for 13 years, before joining Andrews, Lagasse, Branch & Bell, where he works in class action defense and large-scale business litigation. Though he left the death penalty case after Brobeck closed, he stayed in contact with the team, which, in 2017, achieved a reversal of the conviction in the 9th Circuit. The case has been remanded back to the Nevada state court.

Pro bono work has remained a constant. At Pillsbury, Martin took advantage of the firm’s long-standing relationship with Casa Cornelia Law Center, a nonprofit that does extensive work on immigration cases. “They came into our office and gave presentations, trained a lot of people,” Martin says. “I realized what a rewarding opportunity it was.”

One of his most memorable cases involved a young transgender woman from El Salvador seeking asylum in 2015. “The conditions there for transgender women are pretty scary,” Martin says, noting that the threats to his client came not just from violent gangs but from police, too. “So she fled,” Martin says. 

Martin estimates he dedicated some 400 hours to the effort to secure asylum—often working with translators. Even the move to his current firm—co-founder Jon Andrews has been a friend since Brobeck days—didn’t change things. “I wanted to make sure that, when I came over, I would be able to finish this case,” he says. 

But simply trying to meet his client in a detention facility proved frustrating. “It’s tough getting the declarations and gathering all the facts necessary to prosecute these cases,” says Martin. “Just making the arrangements and having to go into that environment to meet with them can be challenging.” Once, when his client became ill, Martin lost contact with her for two weeks; information was difficult to get.

But all the work paid off. In 2018, his client was granted asylum—no small achievement in the current federal immigration climate. “That was one of the most rewarding professional experiences I’ve had,” Martin says. “To see the look on her face was amazing.”

Martin also finds time to help raise two kids and participate with the YMCA Adventure Guides program, which takes children on camping trips in the mountains of California. “I went on something like 60 campouts with them over eight years,” Martin says. “It was crazy.”

How does he find time for it all? “I don’t know,” Martin says after a long pause. “It’s just what we do.” 

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