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Promoting Pro Bono

Diane Menashe has a knack for enlisting people to lend a hand—especially to those in the criminal justice system

Published in 2022 Ohio Super Lawyers Magazine

Diane Menashe is on a mission to create access to justice for incarcerated people eligible to receive a judicial release—and she’s brought six firms together to make that happen.

The Columbus attorney has been a champion for criminal defendants for nearly 25 years, first at the public defender’s office, in the death penalty division; then at her own firm, where she worked for 19 years. On Dec. 28, 2019, she joined Ice Miller, where she became the firm’s first director of litigation training and pro bono services.

In Ohio, judges have the option of imposing non-mandatory sentences, which give incarcerated individuals the right to request early release at some point, depending on the length of their original sentence. However, state law does not provide the right to counsel to navigate the release process. Those individuals must therefore hire their own lawyers to argue for their eligibility, or file pro se. Menashe says this puts an unfair burden on people of color. 

“So, yes, you have a right to [early release]; but, no, you don’t get an attorney,” says Menashe. “We know that, within our criminal justice system, there are racial disparities in sentencing. As a legal community, we can work to dismantle this systemic failure in a number of significant ways. One is to provide those disproportionately impacted—persons of color —with access to justice.”

Menashe began the project by filing a public records request from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction for data on incarcerated defendants of color who were legally eligible for judicial release. “We started with Franklin County, and I formed a coalition of law firms because I thought that there would be greater impact if we did this work as a community.” 

She recruited five other firms to team up with Ice Miller on the Judicial Release Coalition: Squire Patton Boggs; Baker & Hostetler; Jones Day; Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease; and Bricker & Eckler. 

The JRC is an initiative of Ice Miller’s Racial Justice Task Force, which the firm launched after events of 2020, including George Floyd’s murder. “It was that moment for me,” Menashe says—the moment to bring people together to address racial wrongs in the justice system. 

Beginning in December 2020, nearly 100 JRC lawyers have participated in a significant number of judicial-release filings. In addition to literally opening doors for incarcerated individuals, the project gave associates at participating firms  litigation training and in-court experience. 

“The marriage between the training and the pro bono work [seems] like an obvious one to me,” says Menashe, who for the past five years has also served annually as faculty in trial advocacy workshops at Harvard Law School. 

“She’s so charismatic and committed to the pro bono projects that she has started and recruited people for,” says business litigator John Gilligan, a colleague at Ice Miller. “People are fighting to get these cases. They love this work. They are excited about it.”

That’s just the reaction Menashe was hoping for. “Many associates that are doing racial justice work have reached out [to] say, ‘I never thought I could do this kind of work and be at a firm,’” she says. “I just did a hearing this morning with an associate from Baker. She was like, ‘This is the coolest thing I’ve ever done since I became a lawyer.’”


Why Diane Menashe Does Pro Bono

The idea of pro bono work does not appeal to all. “People think it’s like volunteering,” Menashe says. “It would be really incredible if, as a legal field, we started thinking about pro bono as equal in value to our billable work and look to our communities to identify the needs.”

Still, she understands the reluctance from some. “A lot of criminal defense attorneys would say, ‘I do enough. I can’t give more.’ I do appreciate that, but I also appreciate that all of us who do criminal defense work know of the gross inequities that exist within our system—not just obvious socioeconomic but the racial disparities. We can’t, in my opinion, really close those gaps unless we start to make more sacrifices.” 

But Menashe believes there’s a trend toward deeper commitment to pro bono. “It’s 2021, and our clients care, and our lawyers care, and our staff care,” she says. “The light is shining on these issues more brightly now. You can’t turn away as easily now from injustices that are going on.

“The next generation wants to be doing this kind of work.”

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