In the 12 months since the Washington office of Skadden Arps spearheaded a novel pro bono partnership with local legal aid groups as well as Northrop Grumman, LivingSocial and Cisco — the first of its kind in the region — the firm has chalked up some unexpected results.
All of the firm’s 18 first-year associates in D.C. signed up, a level of interest never seen before, said Skadden lawyer Fred Goldberg, who helped coordinate the initiative, called the Impact Project. And Goldberg, a veteran tax attorney, found himself taking pointers from lawyers decades younger than him on cases that landed him in the unfamiliar territory of landlord-tenant law.
“I’m a 65-year-old guy who runs a tax practice,” Goldberg said. “It’s refreshing to be part of group co-run by counsel and associates who are 15 or 20 years my junior. That’s a really healthy thing for a law firm environment. I’m learning a lot.”
Like most major law firms, Skadden has long encouraged its lawyers to take on pro bono cases. But the Impact Project is the first attempt by attorneys in Washington’s legal and business community to bring a law firm, corporate legal departments and legal aid groups together to target three specific areas of need among low-income D.C. residents. The project created three virtual practice groups, each staffed with attorneys from Skadden, the three companies and the three legal aid groups — Children’s Law Center, Legal Aid Society of D.C. and Bread for the City — to work on housing, guardianship and domestic violence issues.
They designed the Impact Project to address the most common problems that come up when lawyers take on pro bono cases on their own: not enough training in a specific areas of law, not enough manpower and not enough consistency in how much time their day job allows them to devote. The project created structure to address those problems. Lawyers would work on cases in teams rather than going it alone, they’d be able to attend organized training led by legal aid lawyers, and Skadden’s technology specialists would create an intranet for online access to training materials. The project also brings critical mass: the initiative is open to all of Skadden’s 280 attorneys in D.C., Northrop’s 150-member legal team in Falls Church, LivingSocial’s 12 attorneys in the District and Cisco’s 20 lawyers based out of its Herndon office.
To date, the Impact Project has started work on 55 cases, nearly half of which involve domestic violence victims seeking protective orders from their abusers. Lawyers have helped obtain 19 temporary orders and 10 permanent civil orders from D.C. Superior Court. They have represented 16 families facing eviction or living in substandard housing conditions, with most of them ending in landlords either moving tenants to new units or repairing housing code violations. And they have served as the legal advocates for children in 16 custody cases.
The project is also giving the law firm a chance to learn from their corporate partners in unexpected ways.
“We’re creating the legal platform, they’re helping out on technology side,” said Mike Naeve, head of Skadden’s Washington office. “Firms like Cisco and LivingSocial are way ahead of law firms in technology and how they share information, the ease of access to information, real time chat rooms ... it’s interesting to learn how these other institutions that are involved in lawyering are dealing with technology. We have a lot to learn from them in terms of that kind of sharing.”
Now, Skadden offices in Chicago; Palo Alto, Calif.; and London are starting to put together their own variations of the Impact Project, and the Washington office is considering bringing in other law firms.
“We’re starting to talk to other potential partners,” Naeve said. “Small law firms have a hard time building this kind of infrastructure. We have so much more to figure out and do over the next several years. We’ve got a foundation, but there’s much more we need to get done.”