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Milbank Pro Bono Counsel On Leading By Example

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For Milbank LLP pro bono counsel Anthony Perez Cassino, there's no question that a firm's commitment to serving the public good starts with its leaders.

smiling man in suit

Anthony Perez Cassino

It's something he said was embodied by Milbank chairman Scott A. Edelman, who Cassino said was often "the last one [to leave] the room" when preparing an attorney to handle a pro bono case.

Milbank said it logged more than 54,000 hours of pro bono work across its 12 offices worldwide in 2023. About 96% of its roughly 630 attorneys in the United States took up some form of volunteer legal work.

Cassino, who has been a member of the firm's pro bono team for over two decades, said he wants to see the percentage of Milbank's lawyers in the U.S. who do at least 20 hours of pro bono — it was 82% last year — increase. "I'd like to be at 90," he told Law360.

Some of the firm's most notable work has involved criminal justice reform, including a settlement resolving claims of racial discrimination by police in Suffolk County, New York, and the exoneration of Mark Purnell, a Black man from Delaware who was wrongly imprisoned for 16 years for murder.

The firm also represented six female college students who fled Taliban rule in Afghanistan following the U.S. military's withdrawal from the country in 2021, and provided legal help to a father and a daughter from Honduras who were separated at the U.S.-Mexico border while seeking asylum.

Last month, Milbank announced a partnership with the Perlmutter Center for Legal Justice at Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, pledging $1 million to create a specialized unit to review the cases of incarcerated people seeking exoneration or resentencing.

In a recent interview with Law360, Cassino talked about Milbank's commitment to its pro bono program and the firm's leadership involvement in it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you describe Milbank's pro bono program and philosophy in a nutshell?

I want to place everybody in matters that they feel passionately about or that would feel rewarding. That's my highest goal.

We don't sort of box things up and say, "You could do these four things." We literally go to them and say, "Tell us what you want to do, and I'm going to try and get you close to that, as close as I can." So, it's very bespoke. It's a lot of work, but it's worth it.

If somebody comes to me and says, "I want to work with an animal rights organization," or "I want to help kids in some situation," I feel like that's an opportunity for them to fulfill their passions.

On the flip side, we also believe that the commitment should be deep and throughout the firm. It shouldn't be centered in one office or one department. We want it to be across the board.

Having partners involved personally is very important. Scott [Edelman] is a very modest guy. He's a partner and the head of the firm, but he doesn't talk about a lot of things that he does. Scott has worked on death penalty cases. Sometimes we would have [moot court sessions] where we're mooting somebody for a criminal appeal, and Scott will participate, and he won't stop. I think having leadership participate in a real way has been the most important thing to the success of our program. Our partners really mean it, and it starts with him.

How do you connect attorneys willing to volunteer their time with pro bono opportunities?

We don't send out blasts. I've never thought it was useful, and I've been working with volunteers for 30 years.

Every month, our lawyers get an automated email on the first day of the month telling them where they are in terms of their pro bono hours. It's a reminder. I have partners in every office who we work with, and I send them a report every month that says where everybody is, and they contact the other attorneys to say, "Hey, you should reach out and get involved."

The goal is to reach everybody consistently with the message, "Hey, this is important. You need to do this. Let us know how we can help you find what you want to do." It's really a one-on-one thing.

The firm has grown a lot, so it's gotten more challenging. Our summer class is now 90-something summer associates. In the past, it would be 20 or 30 people, and I would get to know them personally. Now it's much harder, but we've kept that model. It's more labor-intensive, but more targeted towards what they want. I think we're going to stick with that. I think it's the right way to go.

What do you think are the biggest obstacles to providing a lawyer to those who most need one?

I'm going to tell you what most firms struggle with: There's a real inventory problem. When people think about pro bono, they don't think that there's any limit to it, and there's some truth to that. But because there are so many law firms reaching out to legal aid programs, inventory can be very challenging.

When I get 90 summer associates joining us in October, and every one of them is going to do pro bono, I have to place 90 associates on matters. I need a lot of matters. If you multiply that by all the firms, the big firms, that's a lot.

Landing one of those, what I would call "sexy, high-profile cases" is like landing a big paying client. Those aren't easy to get, because there's competition for them. None of this is to blame the programs. The programs are doing their best to supply all this.

Then, also, in some areas you need training, for instance in immigration. To get our transactional lawyers to do immigration, you need training and supervision.

I'm always looking for interesting cases, important cases. What I look for, especially in a big case, is if there was some injustice. Was anybody, for whatever reason, treated unfairly, either by somebody else or by the system? That's really where people get passionate about it. But to find all of that is a challenge. We have relationships with dozens and dozens of programs who do a great job, but they have to keep up with huge inventory requests from law firms.

Is there anything that law firm pro bono programs can do to provide assistance in more rural areas of the country that are severely underserved when it comes to legal representation?

It's an interesting conundrum. When you leave the big cities, you don't have the same concentration of massive law firms. And it's a bigger challenge for smaller firms to take on a case, especially a big case — can you sacrifice taking on a case that might cost you a million dollars in legal fees?

The other challenge is that, even here in New York, it all has to do with the middleman. You have groups like, let's say, the Legal Aid Society, or the Lawyers Alliance For New York. They have to find the client, they have to screen the client, and they have to place the client. Those programs are taxed. They have small budgets, and they are trying to do all that they can to do. So even in the big cities, those nonprofits are really maxed out.

COVID did change the paradigm. We do have a lot of things that we can do remotely now that were once in person, which has increased the ability of lawyers to help people. We used to do clinics that had to be in person, and now we can do them online — huge impact. So, it has changed the paradigm in pro bono for the better.

When it comes to remote work, the problem is always going to be the ability to practice law in a particular state. For example, Milbank is based in New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. We always have to get local counsel if we're doing something in another state. On the other hand, there are no reasons that New York City lawyers couldn't be handling cases remotely in Buffalo, Rochester, or Albany.

What changes do you see happening in the world of law firm pro bono work?

A lot of law firms have been really interested in clinic models and brief advice models. I think there's a value to that, but I'd hate to see it go too far. For whatever reason, it's not something that our lawyers really gravitate toward. Full representation is obviously a bigger commitment. Lawyers are busy. It's a tough challenge when you take on something that you're not even sure how many hours is going to take.

In terms of subject matter, we are very reliant on the infrastructure of legal services groups, because they really are our primary source of cases, and they tell us what's needed. Years ago, when AIDS was an epidemic, there were so many programs handling it. Every couple of years, trends change, needs change, and we follow them.

We saw this surge in immigration issues a couple years ago, which is still happening because of the influx of migrants at the border. So that's going to be a driver for a long time because there is an overwhelming need. Obviously, after George Floyd's murder, firms really jumped on criminal justice reform, and I think that remains a priority.

What areas does Milbank focus on in doing pro bono?

Immigration and criminal justice reform are two big areas for us. In terms of immigration, we do everything from individual representation to class action suits to policy reform. In terms of criminal justice, we've worked for many years with juveniles in various parts of the country who are sentenced to life without parole.

But the reality is that a lot of what we do is much smaller, individual, and not big and sexy. For instance, helping a senior with a will or helping a small nonprofit to get off the ground.

We helped a woman who had a home in the Bronx for 50 years, and her husband died. Somebody started to develop part of her property, saying they owned it. After we got involved, we figured out there was fraud along the line. She was just going to have her property taken from her. So, not a big sexy story. Nobody knows about that. But a big percentage of the pro bono work a law firm does is not that newsworthy. Most people in the firm don't even know.

Most of the immigration work for individuals is not going to make the news, but the impact is tremendous. And to both the lawyers and the clients, it's an emotional thing.

--Editing by Peter Rozovsky.

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