More Law Firms Helping Davis Wright Protect Journalists

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After a pilot program between Davis Wright Tremaine LLP and Microsoft Corp. showed the need to give pro bono legal support to local journalism, more law firms are joining the cause, they and other partners in the initiative said Monday.

The Protecting Journalists Pro Bono Program, or ProJourn, began in Washington state and California in 2020 and 2021 so media attorneys and corporate in-house counsel could give small news organizations, nonprofit newsrooms, documentary filmmakers and freelancers no-cost legal help with pre-publication review and public records access.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation partnered with the law firm and the computer software company to expand ProJourn this year.

Among the initial law firms joining ProJourn's efforts to grow the nationwide footprint of the program are BakerHostetler, Covington & Burling LLP, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP, Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP and McGuireWoods LLP.

"Local news organizations are doing vital work to keep their communities informed and engaged, and it is important for them to have access to legal assistance to fulfill their mission," McGuireWoods partner Brad Kutrow told Law360 Monday. "We are proud to be part of the ProJourn program and to support local journalism."    

Kristen Rasmussen, former journalist and BakerHostetler staff attorney in Atlanta, told Law360 that her firm's commitment to media and First Amendment law goes back more than 100 years to its early— and ongoing — representation of E.W. Scripps Co., which started its media empire in 1878 with the Penny Press in Cleveland.

"ProJourn is a unique opportunity for BakerHostetler attorneys to continue to provide legal services to journalists as they fulfill their important newsgathering and disseminating roles, while also deepening the firm's relationships with corporate clients," Rasmussen said.

The goal is for ProJourn to grow into a network of law firms and corporate legal departments that could handle up to 300 legal matters each year, with an estimated annual value of $3.5 million in pro bono services by the end of 2024.

"The impact of ProJourn has been profound, and we are thrilled that these outstanding firms have agreed to help us expand its capacity," Joanna Plichta Boisen, chief pro bono and social impact officer at Davis Wright Tremaine, said in a joint statement. "The need is great, the goal is vital, and these generous colleagues have the skills and commitment to help make it happen on a national level."

ProJourn's premise is that impactful local journalism often requires lawyers — and that lack of access to lawyers shouldn't be an obstacle to investigative work. ProJourn will enhance its existing efforts by bringing law firms and corporate attorneys into the mix.

"A distinguishing aspect of ProJourn is the partnership and close training that law firm lawyers with First Amendment expertise are sharing with in-house corporate lawyers," Sima Sarrafan, co-founder of ProJourn and assistant general counsel at Microsoft, said. "By working side-by-side, in what we call our '2-in-a-box model,' we're bringing corporate lawyers into the fold and thereby expanding the pool of lawyers who can help journalists in need."

Studies show that newsrooms often can't afford to hire their own attorneys. At the same time, there is a growing culture of secrecy in government, ProJourn officials noted.

"Threats to journalism are becoming more urgent," Flavie Fuentes, ProJourn director with the Reporters Committee, said in the joint statement. "ProJourn will increase the pro bono help out there for journalists who need a lawyer."

Alberto Ibargüen, president and CEO of the Knight Foundation, said the initiative empowers local journalists and journalism organizations to do their work more effectively.

"The law can be a weapon and a shield; journalists need both in a healthy democracy," Ibargüen added.

The idea for a joint pro bono project in defense of journalists — who have been under increasing attack in recent years — was born in 2019 shortly after a Microsoft attorney attended media law practice training hosted by Davis Wright Tremaine.

That firm has approximately 600 lawyers serving clients across the U.S. and around the world, and is known for having one of the leading media and entertainment practice groups in the country.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press gives pro bono legal representation, amicus curiae support, and other legal resources to protect First Amendment freedoms and the news-gathering rights of journalists.

--Additional reporting by Marco Poggio. Editing by Alyssa Miller.

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