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The Two-Way Street

Lawyers at Davis Polk & Wardwell activate the firm’s worldwide pro bono initiatives

Published in 2011 New York Metro Super Lawyers magazine

“Pro bono work has been a very important part of this firm for a very, very long time,” says Sharon Katz, senior counsel for pro bono at Davis Polk & Wardwell. Established in 1849, the firm now has 10 worldwide offices with U.S.-based attorneys and legal staff taking on a huge number of matters on a pro bono basis each year.  

In 2011, the firm focused on criminal justice matters—such as wrongful convictions, death penalty work, serving as counsel to the New York State Justice Task Force, and assisting the Innocence Project, Legal Aid and other nonprofits and organizations that focus on criminal justice. According to firm statistics, Davis Polk attorneys handled 33 criminal appeals and worked on 31 resentence petitions in 2011 alone. 

To break it down, Katz, a past partner who also served as co-chair of the firm’s pro bono committee from 2006 to 2011, says: “For 2011, we had over 62,000 total pro bono hours, which is an average of 75 hours pro bono per lawyer and over 40 percent of our lawyers had more than 20 hours.”

Of course, the pro bono work isn’t just numbers and percentages—for some clients, it’s life or death. At the time of publication, the firm was representing two clients who could face capital punishment: one man in Louisiana and death row inmate Timothy McKinney, who was recently granted a new trial by the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals. Davis Polk attorneys were able to prove ineffective assistance of counsel in McKinney’s first trial and continue to be of service, helping prepare for his new trial. 

Besides criminal justice work, those many pro bono hours have included everything from workers’ rights to foster home litigation to women’s rights to election protection to asylum. The work has been recognized by organizations such as the New York State Bar Association, which presented Davis Polk with the President’s Pro Bono Service Award in 2011. 

“The organizations, of course, are extremely grateful to us and to all of the law firms that provide assistance to them,” Katz says, “because they frankly could not possibly do everything they need to do without the assistance of all of the firms and the lawyers who participate in these kinds of programs.”

Davis Polk does not require any attorneys or staff to take on pro bono matters, Katz says; the program’s participation numbers are so high simply because attorneys want to get involved. 

“It’s not a one-way street,” she says of the people and programs that benefit from the firm’s pro bono efforts. “Of course our lawyers get tremendous benefits from doing it: The training, the skill development. As they get older and more advanced, they get to supervise matters as well.

“And it’s helpful; it’s a very rewarding feeling. Many people will say that the pro bono work that they do here is the most meaningful work that they sometimes have done in their lives. So we get a lot out of it, too.” 

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