Revealing History and Touching the Heart through Pro Bono Legal Services
by Carole E. Handler
Gut's story is told in her autobiography In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer.
On May 9, 2007—62 years to the day after V-E Day was declared—a play based on the life of this remarkable woman was previewed by Invictus Theatre in New York City. Four-time Tony nominee Tovah Feldshuh recreated Irene in a mesmerizing performance. But the performance had particular resonance for me because of the efforts of my former law firm, Kaye Scholer, LLP; another lawyer (Jeff Tidus); and, most of all, Bet Tzedek Legal Services in Los Angeles and its then executive director, David Lash, to reclaim for Irene the rights to her own life story in 2000. The wonderful evening brought home as nothing else could the importance of and unique opportunities provided by pro bonolegal work and the incredible personal rewards that can come to lawyers, young and old, from such giving of their talents.
In the late 1990s, Irene was living alone in Yorba Linda, California, having lost her husband to Alzheimer's. Realizing that all too many people were vociferously denying the Holocaust's very existence, she made it her goal in her 80s to tell her story to young people in the inner cities and, indeed, to all who would listen. She was a charismatic speaker and in great demand.
One night, speaking at a synagogue, she met a couple who raced to take on the tasks of arranging her lectures, having a book published, and, most important, securing a movie deal. Sadly, this was not entirely altruistic. Irene, an elderly woman whose ability to read English did not include complicated movie option agreements in fine print, signed away much more for much less than she ever understood or intended. At that point, her relationship with the couple soured, and in near desperation, she turned to Bet Tzedek Legal Services.
Because I am an entertainment litigator, I was the fortunate person to whom they brought the case. Two years later, after a nine-week jury trial, Irene had her rights back, enabling the very talented Dan Gordon (The Hurricane, Murder in the First) to write the play and allowing the May 9 performance to revisit one of history's worst tragedies and highest heroic moments.
Pro bono work is not easy. It is legal work, and the same high standards we always meet always apply to it. In this case, I, my law firm, and Bet Tzedek were sued—absurdly—for defamation and malicious prosecution by the defendants, but to their credit, those organizations never faltered in their commitment, despite huge risk management concerns. Irene became ill, I gained an unneeded 20 pounds, and Bet Tzedek's executive director suffered as well. But we would not have done it differently.
Three new amendments to the rules governing lawyers in Tennessee were adopted on April 2, 2009 by the Tennessee Supreme Court. The new amendments will encourage lawyers to volunteer their time and provide pro bono legal service to Tennessee residents who require the services of a lawyer, but are unable to pay ....
Pro bono legal services for Washington, DC, consumers saw a real boost this past winter with a $10-million donation divvied up between four law student clinical programs in the region. The windfall was a cy pres award stemming from a class-action lawsuit against a cable company accused of overcharging custome ....
Two Florida law firms will receive the 2010 Law Firm Commendation for their pro bono service. The Miami law firm of Hunton & Williams LLP and the Sarasota law firm of Icard, Merrill, Cullis, Timm, Furen & Ginsburg, P.A., will receive their awards on January 28th at the Florida Supreme Court. ....
Occasionally—indeed, all too rarely—our profession offers us the choice to put the principle of justice first and to honor someone worthy. Pro bono legal services organizations are indispensable to this and must be supported. This is true even if the issues are not dramatic or high profile. But ultimately it is a personal commitment—the choice to put paying clients to one side for a time and take on a demanding fight that may or may not prove fruitful and that may require some courage. I can only say that, as I watched Tovah and the brilliant cast, I knew I was experiencing one of those unique moments when the principles of this profession and a truly worthy cause meshed and created something of lasting power and eloquence. I encourage others to do the same. The Irenes of the world would not have it any other way.
About the Author
Carole E. Handler is vice chair of the IP litigation practice at Foley & Lardner. She is also a member of the trademark, copyright, and advertising and antitrust practices, as well as the entertainment and media industry team. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.