An Effective Voice

Appellate lawyer Linda Coberly fights for immigrants’ rights

Published in 2015 Illinois Super Lawyers — February 2015

How do you fix a law that feels less than just? Try, try again.

Shortly after Linda Coberly joined Winston & Strawn as an appellate lawyer in 2004, she took a pro bono case on behalf of a Mexican immigrant who was facing deportation over a drug conviction.

At issue was the severity of the crime. The man, a legal permanent resident, was convicted in Texas of possessing less than a gram of cocaine, which was a felony in that state. Coberly argued that the same crime would not be a felony in federal court and he should thus be exempted from deportation by the federal government.

But an immigration judge held that, because he was convicted of a state felony involving a controlled substance, that constituted an “aggravated felony” under federal immigration law, which subjected him to deportation.

“Ultimately I wasn’t able to help him, which I found to be very tragic,” says Coberly, partner and chair of Winston & Strawn’s appellate and critical motions practice in Chicago. “It was a very sad story for his family. … It showed me how much this matters.”

In 2006, Coberly got involved in a similar case in which an immigrant faced deportation for a simple possession charge. She filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court, and this time the court held that this kind of offense did not constitute an aggravated felony for purposes of federal immigration law.

“So the very thing that caused the first guy to be deported has been fixed in immigration laws because of the pro bono lawyers who pressed these cases and clarified the law,” Coberly says.

While working on these cases, she got connected with the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) of Heartland Alliance, a human rights and anti-poverty organization in Chicago. It was the beginning of a long-term relationship. Coberly is now a board member of its parent organization, Heartland Alliance.

Coberly was recently honored with the NIJC’s 2014 Human Rights Practitioner Award. “It’s an incredible organization and I’m really impressed with the work they’ve done,” she says.

Early in her career, Coberly was a general litigator, but she was drawn to appellate work, particularly after serving a clerkship under U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. “I loved the writing,” she says. “I love the strategic aspect of this work.”

Her appellate practice at Winston & Strawn focuses on commercial cases and corporate failures involving allegations of fraud. For example, over the past decade she has defended accounting firm Grant Thornton in suits alleging financial fraud at U.S. brokerage firm Refco and Italian dairy company Parmalat. She succeeded with the Refco case, and Parmalat is ongoing.

One of the things Coberly likes about working at Winston & Strawn is that its appellate and trial practices are integrated. “You can play an important role in shaping the evolution of the case if you’re involved in the very beginning,” she says.

Coberly handles all kinds of cases, including one that brought her a brush with movie-land glamour. The producer of Effie Gray, written by Emma Thompson, had been sued by a playwright over a copyright claim involving the script. The movie is about a 19th-century love triangle involving art critic John Ruskin, his teenage wife, Effie Gray, and painter John Everett Millais.

The producer won the original suit, and hired Coberly for the appeal. She prevailed, and the movie, starring Dakota Fanning and Thompson, was released in October 2014. Coberly attended the premiere in London. “How cool is that?” she asks. “We even got a credit at the end of the movie.”

Still, for Coberly, the most satisfying cases are the pro bono ones involving immigration issues.

“It’s just so clear how it matters to people and their families,” Coberly says. “It’s very meaningful to me, personally, and a lot of my colleagues, to do this work. It’s also about making sure that people in the system have effective access to the rights they already have under the law.

“Sometimes what people need is an effective voice.”

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