A Pro Bono Program Achieves National Recognition

Tuesday, August 1, 2006 - 01:00

Editor: Ms. Luxton, would you tell our readers something about your professional experience?

Luxton: I am an environmental lawyer and a partner at King & Spalding's Washington, DC office. During my career I have been a litigator at the Department of Justice and a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney. Since leaving government, I have worked in large and small firms and a corporate legal department. I did my undergraduate work at Harvard and went on to Cornell Law School.

Editor: How did you come to King & Spalding? Would you share with us the things that attracted you to the firm?

Luxton: I joined King & Spalding about seven years ago from a small firm, where I had been able to work on a reduced schedule while my children were young. Of the firms I looked at, King & Spalding was the obvious choice. Its reputation, its culture and its many areas of expertise created the right combination and a wonderful platform for me to expand my practice.

Editor: Please tell us something about your practice.

Luxton: As I hoped, my practice has grown since joining King & Spalding. With the kinds of resources that a firm of this caliber possesses, I have been able to develop the international aspects of my practice and to become involved in a variety of professional activities. I am currently vice chair of the ABA's International Environmental Law Committee, for example. In the last couple of years, I was named by Chambers and Best Lawyers in the U.S., the publications that rate attorneys, as among best lawyers in the country in my field. That is hard to do from a small firm base.

Editor: You have also had a kind of parallel career in the pro bono arena. How did you get started in pro bono work?

Luxton: I was fortunate when I left the Justice Department to join Steptoe & Johnson, a DC firm with a very strong commitment to pro bono. They encouraged their associates to become active in pro bono work. Predictably, I was not able to do much of this while at a smaller firm working limited hours.

When I joined King & Spalding I found a modest pro bono program but considerable interest. Not long after my arrival, Wick Sollers became the office's managing partner. He had a very strong commitment to pro bono and to raising the profile of the Washington office, a nice confluence of events. At about the same time, the chief judges of the federal and local courts in DC convened a meeting of the managing partners and the heads of the pro bono programs of the 50 largest firms in the city, who were told that they needed to make a much stronger commitment to pro bono service than had prevailed to that point. As a consequence, the DC office of King & Spalding decided to become part of the Pro Bono Challenge, which is what the judges were requesting.

Editor: What does a commitment to the Pro Bono Challenge entail?

Luxton: It constitutes a pledge to perform pro bono service equal to at least three percent of the firm's - in our case, the DC office's - billable hours. The Washington office determined that it was ready to take this step, and the firm was willing to support it. The results have been very encouraging. From 2001, when our pro bono hours represented 0.9 per cent of billable hours, we have gone to 4.3 percent in 2005, and now the challenge is to sustain that level of performance. In 2001, the per lawyer average for pro bono work was 16.4 hours, and in 2005 it was 76.8. In 2001 33 percent of our lawyers participated; in 2005, 86 percent. Each office has its own manner of encouraging participation in pro bono work, but since 2001 the firm as a whole has tripled its pro bono hours.

Editor: How has King & Spalding met the challenge of providing pro bono opportunities for its transactional lawyers?

Luxton: It's often noted that pro bono lends itself to litigation activities. Nevertheless, our transactional attorneys seem to turn up opportunities on their own, and frequently. One of our tax counsel became interested in a group called Building Blocks International, which uses Harvard MBAs to create the business underpinnings of educational programs around the world. She is now on the organization's board, and we serve as outside counsel.

We have a young corporate associate, originally from Africa, who is interested in the developing film industry in Nigeria. He has become counsel to the organization concerned. Another associate is involved in a therapeutic program that provides horseback riding lessons and support for disabled children. We incorporated that group and have remained active.

Needless to say, we are always on the lookout for opportunities for our attorneys to become involved.

Editor: How is the program structured?

Luxton: We formed a committee when we decided to accept the Pro Bono Challenge. The associates vetted a number of established programs, and we spoke to people with expertise in the pro bono arena. Out of this exercise we came up with two program areas: asylum/immigration and domestic violence cases. By focusing on these areas, developing the requisite expertise and then passing it on through rigorous training programs, we have achieved some continuing success. We also take on other cases - including major litigation projects like death penalty habeas cases and civil rights lawsuits, to pick two current examples - when opportunities arise.

Editor: How do you deal with the situation where a pro bono matter erupts and requires more work than originally anticipated?

Luxton: We cope with it the same way we do with a billable project that suddenly becomes explosive. We find the people to do the work, and it is very helpful that we can call upon the personnel, and resources, of the firm's other offices.

Editor: Please tell us about the firm's Indigent Criminal Defense Program.

Luxton: One of our counsel, who had been an Assistant U.S. Attorney, connected with some of his former colleagues and a former Public Defender's Service lawyer. They helped us develop a program through which more indigent felony defendants could receive counsel. The benefit to us, of course, included an opportunity to offer hands-on courtroom experience to our younger attorneys. The program included an extensive course in DC Superior Court procedures and a refresher on criminal law and trial techniques. After going through the course, a number of us were certified by the DC courts to represent these defendants, and eight of us took our first cases last fall.

Editor: In recent years the Washington office has been the recipient of a number of awards for its pro bono work. Would you tell us about some of them?

Luxton: We received two outstanding achievement awards from the Washington Lawyers Committee, in 2003 and 2005. These awards were for a succession of cases in one of our two signature program areas, in this case for asylum and immigration work. The cases were difficult - they involved situations of female genital mutilation, torture, forced enlistment of juveniles in a gang, and the like - and all had positive outcomes.

In 2004 we received Maryland's Pro Bono Award. The case in question came to us through an appellate domestic violence program, DV-LEAP, that we have supported since its creation. The defendant, who had repeatedly violated a civil protective order, kidnapped his three children and then called his wife - numerous times - threatening to kill the children. A SWAT team eventually tracked him down and the children were rescued. The issue for the Maryland Supreme Court revolved around whether the series of threatening phone calls represented one continuing violation of the civil protective order - meaning a short sentence - or multiple violations - meaning long-term imprisonment. We filed an amicus brief - which was quoted essentially verbatim in the court's decision - for the latter reading. It was an important decision and a very good result.

Another outstanding case for us was Leocal v. Ashcroft . Josue Leocal, a legal Haitian immigrant who had lived in the U.S. for 20 years, was convicted of drunk driving with bodily injury in 2000. Immigration laws allow the deportation of noncitizens convicted of a violent crime, and Florida, where he was convicted, classified drunk driving as a violent crime. The 11th Circuit upheld this interpretation, but one of our associates realized that the decision was at odds with precedent in another Circuit Court of Appeals. In February 2004, the United States Supreme Court agreed to review. The question concerned whether this crime constituted an aggravated felony, which is a deportable offense. Our managing partner, Wick Sollers, argued the case, and the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in our favor. We were given a national pro bono award from the Catholic Legal Immigration Network for this effort.

Editor: Recognition such as this does not just happen. Please tell us about the firm's pro bono culture and the values that it seeks to assert in taking on these projects.

Luxton: Culture is important to a firm. Judge Griffin Bell, former Attorney General, who first joined King & Spalding more than 50 years ago, has been a strong advocate for the proposition that lawyers are public servants and that they must use their skills for the public good. He has imbued the firm with this concept. The fact that it is woven into our firm culture finds no better expression than the appearance of a number of our senior partners in court or on briefs in these cases. That sends a very strong message to everyone that this is a real commitment.

Editor: Does such a program have a positive effect on recruiting and then retaining law school graduates and young laterals?

Luxton: Very much so. Invariably, we are asked by the young people we are interviewing whether the firm encourages pro bono work, how many pro bono cases the firm handles, whether billable hour credit is accorded pro bono work, and so on. They want to be with a firm that places value on this work, and many of them tell us that these are the cases they went to law school hoping to handle. A strong pro bono program means, in addition, that young lawyers will have an opportunity to take on very responsible roles very early in their careers. Writing a brief solo, standing up in a courtroom in front of a judge and jury, working one-on-one with a client - these are things that motivated young people want to do, and a firm that permits them to do so at an early point is going to be looked upon very favorably.

I should add that our clients are very supportive of these pro bono undertakings. They want to be identified with law firms that reflect the values that underlie pro bono service. Quite aside from being the right thing to do, pro bono work helps attract both the best and brightest young attorneys and clients who stand for high principles.

Editor: What about the personal rewards derived from these efforts?

Luxton: These cases are meaningful, and they are the source of experiences that stay with you. Over the course of a career, a lawyer is going to have a number of high points. What is striking is that so often these come from having helped someone personally in the pro bono arena.

Please email the interviewee at jluxton@kslaw.com with questions about this interview.