In April, attorneys at Boston's Testa, Hurwitz & Thibeault received an urgent e-mail from Jeffrey Goldman, the head of the firm's immigration practice. The message detailed the plight of a former Zimbabwean government worker who had been persecuted because of her covert support of an opposition party. The woman fled to the United States in May 2002, and her request for asylum was pending before an immigration judge. She didn't have a lawyer. Offers to take up her cause poured in from Testa attorneys, including the co-chair of the patent group. But first-year associate Sarah Berger beat them to it. "She got back to me within seconds," says Goldman. And she got the case.
Lots of young lawyers are landing similar cases these days, thanks to a glut of requests for political asylum. Last year the Immigration and Naturalization Service received more than 64,000 such requests, adding to the 400,000 cases already on the agency's docket. Security measures enacted after September 11 have increased the odds that the would-be immigrants will be expelled from the country or confined to detention centers. Even people who aren't locked up can face long delays in obtaining working papers due to a waiting period that was instituted as part of 1996 immigration legislation. All of which makes it harder for asylum seekers to afford a lawyer, and court- appointed attorneys aren't provided (there's no right to counsel in civil cases). The result is a long list of people who need legal assistance, compelling cases for lawyers to tackle - and a growing area of pro bono law.
"At large firms, there's been a dramatic increase in the number of lawyers doing asylum cases," says Esther Lardent, president of the Pro Bono Institute at Georgetown University Law Center and chair of the American Bar Association's immigration commission. "As all of the processes around asylum and detention have gotten so freighted and complicated, there has been more of a push by immigration organizations to make lawyers aware of the need for their services. And more volunteers have responded."
Arnold & Porter, King & Spalding, and Holland & Knight are among the firms joining the likes of Davis Polk & Wardwell, Latham & Watkins, and Testa in donating significant hours to asylum cases. The Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review sponsors a project that has helped secure representation for more than 200 detainees in the two and a half years since its launch. This fall, lawyers at Microsoft, well-practiced in securing visas for the company's foreign-born technologists and engineers, will kick off a pro bono initiative to share their expertise.
"When these people have legal representation, their chances are so much better," says Dave Berten, CEO of asylumlaw.org, a clearinghouse for lawyers handling such cases. According to the INS, roughly 20 percent of asylum applicants - who often don't speak fluent English and almost never have the resources to track down evidence corroborating their claims - are granted sanctuary in the United States. According to Berten's organization, for those applicants working with lawyers the rate jumps to 80 percent.
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Lawyers benefit from the relationship, too.
"Especially for young attorneys, there's something to be said for being the lead counsel, the person in charge, the only one who knows what's going on," says Archana Pyati, a University of Michigan law grad who is completing a fellowship at the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights in New York. The nature of the proceedings also makes them appealing, perhaps more so than other types of pro bono opportunities. "The clients you're dealing with are courageous, accomplished, and ambitious, and typically you can relate to them well," says Steven Schulman, who oversees Latham & Watkins's pro bono efforts. "There's also not a lot of procedure, so you can get right into the meat of the case."
Berger, the young Testa associate, estimates that by the time she finished polishing her closing argument, her representation of the Zimbabwean woman had consumed more than 50 hours - which Testa, like many large firms, counts toward her yearly billable total. She never delivered those remarks, though: The judge halted the proceedings during the government's cross-examination of Berger's client and granted asylum. "Seeing the look on my client's face when she heard the ruling," says Berger, "was worth more than the time I had invested."