BigLaw Wants To Aid Ukraine Refugees But Searches For How

By Brandon Lowrey | February 25, 2022, 4:12 PM EST ·

A day after Russian forces blitzed Ukraine, sending waves of refugees fleeing the country, major U.S. law firms scrambled Friday to find ways to help.

Several large law firms with robust pro bono practices told Law360 that they did not have any infrastructure in place to immediately provide aid in the region and weren't yet sure what needs they could realistically meet. Lawyers at the firms, however, were searching for avenues to help, reaching out to nongovernmental organizations and trying to get a sense of what is happening as the conflict develops.

"We're right now in the phase, like with most crises, where there is a mismatch of the interest of the lawyers who want to help and the opportunity to help," said Steven Schulman, who leads Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP's pro bono practice. "I don't expect that mismatch to last long."

Russian forces suddenly struck Ukraine early Thursday and quickly tore across the Eastern European nation. The capital city of Kyiv was under siege by Friday, and many refugees were reportedly fleeing to neighboring Poland.

Schulman and other pro bono lawyers have been receiving desperate emails asking for help on behalf of friends or relatives in Ukraine. But at this point, he said, there's not much they can do.

This situation bears some similarities to the refugee crisis last year in Afghanistan as the U.S. pulled its troops out, another situation that moved with blinding speed and had major humanitarian implications. The U.S. evacuated tens of thousands of Afghan refugees. BigLaw lawyers, including Schulman, were able to spring into action to help them with immigration and other legal matters.

But in Ukraine, there is a major obstacle for lawyers who want to help: The United States is not directly evacuating refugees. 

Jennifer Rikoski, co-chair of Ropes & Gray LLP's pro bono committee, told Law360 that it remained unclear whether Ukrainians would need much immigration assistance in the U.S., as it seemed most would be taken in by neighboring European countries. 

"We'll just have to see how nations respond, who's willing to open their doors," she said. "The U.S. may decide we're going to make it a priority to admit Ukrainians."

Outside of immigration, there are expected to be many other areas of law to contribute, attorneys said.

Nonprofit organizations will likely spring up and need help from corporate and tax lawyers. Advocacy groups may need help lobbying Congress. Existing nonprofit organizations that operate in Russia will likely be affected by sanctions imposed by the U.S. and European nations.

On Friday morning, Schulman received another email from someone asking for help on behalf of a refugee: Once they get to Poland, what should they do?

"And I've got to say, 'Right now, nothing,'" he said. "'When I find out something, I'll let you know.'"

--Additional reporting by Alyssa Aquino and Aebra Coe. Editing by Jill Coffey and Emily Kokoll.

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