Leap of Faith

Attorneys from Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld seek justice for Somali torture victims and other pro bono clients 

Published in 2012 Washington DC Super Lawyers Magazine — May 2012

On Feb. 23, 2012, Yousuf v. Samantar came before the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. The plaintiffs, represented pro bono by lawyers from Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in Washington, D.C., were four men who survived torture in Somalia some 25 years ago, or relatives of others who did not survive. The defendant was Mohamed Ali Samantar, once the second most powerful person in the Siad Barre regime, who now resides in suburban Virginia. He had been fighting for years to maintain his “common law immunity,” but lost it the previous year.

Firm partner Steven Schulman was in the courtroom that day. One of the plaintiffs, Ahmed Gulaid, had been left for dead after being shot by Samantar’s soldiers, other bodies of the dead all around him. Finally, Schulman says, he was having “his day in court.” By the end of that day, Samantar had voluntarily conceded liability in the case.

Later in 2012, the case went before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which affirmed that Samantar was not entitled to immunity.

Akin Gump, with its 800-plus lawyers worldwide, has committed to taking on such huge pro bono efforts. “We averaged 89 hours per U.S. attorney in 2012,” says Schulman, who, since 2006, has worked full time to uncover, manage and lead opportunities for the firm’s pro bono practice. Because the firm has so many resources at its disposal, he says, there are attorneys able to work pro bono cases “who barely ever heard the words pro bono” before. “I had a corporate attorney handling an asylum case,” recalls Schulman. “He felt comfortable taking on that case because there were so many resources within the firm, examples I could send him. He realized he was not going to commit malpractice.” 

The firm’s pro bono projects range from an undocumented Salvadoran woman trying to flee an abusive marriage to a group of Holocaust survivors suing the French National Railroad for transporting more than 75,000 people to Nazi concentration and death camps. 

One of its largest clients is KIPP, the Knowledge is Power Program. KIPP is a national charter school organization working to steer poor and disenfranchised kids toward college. Akin Gump has worked with KIPP to negotiate loans, secure land rights and more—issues ideal for attorneys skilled in transactional law.

Schulman encourages attorneys at every level of the firm to get involved. “As lawyers get more senior, they feel less competent to do this work because their level of expertise has risen to such a level and the drop-off can be quite great,” he says. But once they make that leap of faith, they inevitably feel rewarded, revitalized. 

There is a “communication breakdown between the legal system and the poor and disenfranchised of this country,” Schulman says. “What we want to see is systemic change.” 

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