Across America, people who are Black or Hispanic are much more likely to live in poverty than their white counterparts. With that comes an inability to pay for critical legal services that can help them access basic necessities such as health care, housing, government benefits, employment and educational services.
While the importance of pro bono work to serve marginalized communities isn’t something new to the legal profession, the racial justice component has become increasingly important following the death of George Floyd in 2020, which resulted in protests across the globe. Since then, legal aid experts say there’s been a noticeable and sustained increase in interest in pro bono opportunities with a racial justice component, which providers hope will be a commitment that lasts for the long haul.
In central Ohio, many law firms have recognized the opportunity to use their legal skills to amplify the voices of those oppressed by racism and use the law as a vehicle for change that impacts communities of color and to promote racial equity, says Kate McGarvey, executive director of the Ohio State Legal Services Association. The association, including through the Legal Aid Society of Columbus, helps low-income Ohioans resolve a broad range of civil legal issues.
Diverse Leaders in Law: Register now and see past forums
McGarvey was the guest moderator at Columbus CEO magazine’s quarterly Diverse Leaders in Law forum in April that focused on how law firms can fight racism through pro bono services. Panelists at the forum were:
• Michael Battle, partner and pro bono chair, Barnes & Thornburg
• Yaz Ashrawi, member, Frost Brown Todd
• Janay Stevens, partner, Vorys Sater Seymour & Pease
• Diane Menashe, partner, director of litigation training and pro bono activities, Ice Miller
The following are excerpts from their conversation, which have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Ice Miller’s pro bono efforts got a renewed direction and purpose with the hiring of Menashe at the end of 2019. Her career focus is high-level criminal defense and an ongoing commitment to creating fair access to the criminal justice system. The firm offers an extensive array of pro bono services, including research addressing policy reform for Chicago Police contracts and prisoner release litigation. Ice Miller partners with its corporate clients to host pro bono clinics and collaborates with community stakeholders to find ways to increase the impact upon people in communities who need it most. The firm is, with intention, helping people of color gain access to justice. “We are, with our hearts and minds, leaning in,” Menashe wrote in her inaugural pro bono newsletter.
Menashe says a recent focus area for the firm is a partnership with two professors at the Michigan State University College of Law to examine the impact of race on the administration of the death penalty in Cuyahoga County. Eighty-eight people in the firm have participated in data collection and coding analysis to get to the bottom of the disconnect between the county having more death penalty convictions than other counties that have more homicides. Data collection and coding is an example of how “we can think broadly in this space,” and be involved in areas that go beyond direct litigation. “We need to look at, systemically, how our systems are failing and if they’re failing, why?”
New programs for area minority-owned businesses
In 2020, Vorys Sater Seymour & Pease launched the Vorys Initiative for Business Empowerment to provide low- or no-cost legal support for minority-owned businesses with a goal to create a strong legal foundation that allows clients to navigate the challenges associated with business ownership. Clients often reach out to the firm about employment, business formation, tax, financing, contracts, leasing, construction, brand protection and intellectual property.
Stevens says the firm has been able to bring in about 75 clients so far under the new program. Vorys has found there has been a high demand for intellectual property services, including trademark assistance. Through VIBE, Vorys attorneys helped PWR WMN and Way Down Yonder Beignets & Coffee satisfy their trademark needs and they continue to provide access to attorney resources for additional legal needs as they arise.
Vorys also has partnered with the Columbus Urban League for additional educational programming to fill any knowledge gaps. The program has been rewarding for lawyers and is helping Vorys retain them in a tight market for talent. “They’re likely to stay in an environment where they can both have the career that they want and do the work that they want to do,” Stevens says. “So, I think we’re seeing benefits across both our communities and within the law firm itself.”
At Barnes & Thornburg, Battle helps coordinate pro bono work that’s being done across the firm’s 20 offices. Like other firms, it has a longstanding commitment to a variety of pro bono services while it works to continue to boost outreach to communities of color.
One recent initiative was a “legal primer for black-owned small businesses” webinar. The program is part of the Barnes & Thornburg Black-Owned Small Business Pro Bono Initiative, which aims to help Black-owned small businesses prosper through pro bono legal services and education. The program resulted from “a marriage [among the diversity, equity and inclusion committee, BT Black, which is an affinity group … and the pro bono group,” Battle says.
Helping people re-enter society
An example of Frost Brown Todd’s recent pro bono work is its involvement with the Louisville Urban League for a 2022 expungement project. From February 2018 to February 2021, the Urban League’s Reily Reentry project has gotten more than 7,000 cases successfully cleared from people’s records and saved them almost $1.3 million in related fees. The program aims to give free expungement services to people who have faced criminal charges, so they can find work, housing and participate more fully in society.
“That work is very important,” Ashrawi says. “It goes back to some of the systematic issues that some of these folks face and the snowball effect of what a what a [criminal] record could do to somebody.”
According to The Sentencing Project, Black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons across the country at nearly five times the rate of whites and Latinx people are 1.3 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Latinx whites.
Laura Newpoff is a freelance writer.