Microsoft Helps Match Seattle's Best Lawyers With Asylum Seekers

Sunday, August 1, 2004 - 00:00

Assembling a powerful legal team to offer free legal assistance to detained immigrants, Llew Pritchard began with a call to Microsoft's former general counsel, Bill Neukom. Bill knew Llew from his years of contributing expertise in immigration law to American Bar Association's pro bono efforts.

Helping newcomers to the country to face court-related immigration issues resonated with Bill. He explained, "The project seemed a perfect fit because Microsoft's technical community draws from a large pool of talented scientists and engineers, many of whom are immigrants."

Heading a first-generation legal department, Bill was breaking the ice in setting up Microsoft's first formal pro bono project. "Having a community where people want to live, work and raise their family," he said, "Requires companies to support a functional and fair legal system, including helping to provide access for those in need."

The project also resonated with Microsoft's current general counsel, Brad Smith. Brad has been dedicated to assisting immigration detainees since he was a law student at Columbia Law School. Both he and his wife volunteered in the school's program in which law students helped New York City law firms on their pro bono immigration law cases.

Describing his enthusiasm for the Volunteer Advocates for Immigrant Justice (VAIJ) project, Brad said, "Microsoft is committed to developing programs and products that meet people's needs. We hope this project will have the same positive impact on the lives of those we represent."

Microsoft is underwriting most of the initial three-year costs for the VAIJ project. In addition, lawyers from within its legal department will handle up to 10 cases each year.

Cases will be handled by Seattle's law firms as well. Preston Gates & Ellis LLP and Davis Wright Tremaine LLP will handle as many as 10 cases a year. Other contributors include Perkins Coie LLP; Riddell Williams P.S.; and Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe LLP. Intake and assignment of cases will be coordinated by Julie Bildhauer and David Walding of VAIJ in coordination with the Northwest Immigrants Rights Project.

Training for handling a pro bono case offers lawyers from participating firms and Microsoft an opportunity to hone their advocacy and other legal skills. Lydia Tamez, Microsoft's lead immigration counsel, commented that "Hands-on training in front of an immigration judge helps volunteers to quickly learn what arguments are persuasive and which are not."

The joint efforts of the in-house counsel with their law firm colleagues on the VAIJ project is just one example of the dedication of Seattle's legal community to pro bono work. "For many years, the city's firms of all sizes and description have taken a broad view as stewards of the legal process," noted Matt Wells, a partner at Preston Gates and co-chair of the firm's pro bono and community service committee. "Seattle firms have a long history of understanding, generosity and compassion in making justice accessible to all."
Llew Pritchard commends Microsoft for its leadership role, "Microsoft is the star in the crown. Its entire legal department has the energy and professionalism needed to help VAIJ achieve its goals. Not only has Microsoft and its lawyers contributed their time, money and expertise, they also have encouraged their law firms to get involved. This is a great pro bono model for other corporate counsel to consider."

For more information about VAIJ, contact David Walding at (206) 359-6201.