For well over a decade, Wilson Sonsini has been a valued pro bono partner of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (LCCRSF), committing numerous hours of work and substantial resources towards fighting for racial, economic, and immigrant justice. Most recently, and in the midst of a global pandemic and national call to action for racial justice, Wilson Sonsini has been a rapid-response pro bono partner providing critically needed support to LCCRSF across all program areas. This year alone, Wilson Sonsini has completed more than 2000 hours of pro bono work with LCCRSF and expanded its annual financial contribution with a firm-wide matching campaign for racial justice and commitment from the Wilson Sonsini Foundation for a total of more than $110,000 in funding. The firm often has between 20 to 50 attorneys actively working on various cases in partnership with LCCRSF or directly referred by the organization, typically focused on asylum, racial justice, or legal services for small businesses in the Bay Area.
“Wilson Sonsini pro bono attorneys have been invaluable partners during this critical time,” says Elica Vafaie, Pro Bono Director at LCCRSF. They have stepped up on fast timelines to provide rapid support across all our program matters and also maintained long-term pro bono commitment to asylum cases. They truly are a pro bono partner and driver making our work possible during such a challenging time.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the firm stepped up its dedication to tackling issues of poverty and inequality even further, engaging in virtual legal services to support clients who had no choice but to use for-profit bail bonds company services to get themselves or a loved one out of jail. Often, families are saddled with thousands of dollars in bail debt, which bail companies then aggressively pursue. Wilson Sonsini worked closely with LCCRSF staff and Salesforce to host the first virtual Bail Clinic and has taken on three bail clinic cases so far, partnering with a Salesforce attorney on each case.
“It has been uplifting to have the opportunities to help people who are often relentlessly pursued by these bail bond companies because they were desperate to get a loved one out of jail and didn’t have the means. And more so to see – especially early in the “shelter in place” when we started this project – that we can still build trust and make an impact for our clients at a time when we can’t physically meet with them,” says Luke Liss, who helps lead Wilson Sonsini’s pro bono program. “For me personally, to see how one of our clients faced discrimination and harassment from the bail bond company and the way they treated her and her family members like they didn’t matter, was particularly impactful. It inspires me to see how she and our other clients worked with us and our great partners at Salesforce to stand up and push back on these tactics. That spirit exemplifies what we strive for in the Wilson Sonsini pro bono program, and is why we do pro bono. It is never okay to treat people like they are less than; it should never be a norm or business model to prey on those going through hard times. We are thankful to work on initiatives like this with great partners like LCCRSF and Salesforce.”
“The attorneys we have worked with bring both an invigorating level of enthusiasm for the issues and an intellectual curiosity that builds strong legal strategies to fight on behalf of people who come to our Bail Clinic seeking relief and support,” says Tifanei Ressl-Moyer, Thurgood Marshall Fellow at LCCRSF. “It is a joy to partner with Wilson Sonsini attorneys as we navigate the complex legal issues that impact our clients and California communities.”
Wilson Sonsini pro bono attorneys have also been supporting the Legal Services for Entrepreneurs program to provide legal services to small businesses with specific legal issues or to provide consultation to clients who would like to incorporate their business or nonprofit but do not have access to the resources to do so. “It’s a form of pro bono that goes a little bit under the radar, but it’s helping someone become economically empowered and to start a business that can last for generations,” Liss said. “It’s also a great experience builder for our folks to build up their corporate practice muscles, and take the lead on working with clients directly. To me, this program exemplifies the reciprocal nature of pro bono – a chance to make an impact while building your skills and experience. This program is one that we’ve been involved in for several years, and we typically have multiple of these matters going at any time.”
Steven Guggenheim, co-head of Wilson Sonsini’s Pro Bono Committee along with corporate partner Melissa Hollatz, began doing pro bonowork with LCCRSF four years ago and is now a board member of the organization. He currently supervises many of the asylum cases, and has overseen numerous successful asylum applications over the years. “The litigation Wilson Sonsini does with LCCRSF can have an extremely meaningful and varied impact on the lives of our joint clients. For example, it may help end a form of discrimination against them, allow them to escape persecution in a foreign country, or it may assist them in beginning to break free from the cycle of poverty,” says Guggenheim. “I’m proud of the pro bono work our attorneys do with LCCRSF and I get to see their zealous and conscientious advocacy first hand. The fact that working with LCCRSF gives our attorneys real opportunities to practice and develop their skills as litigators is an added bonus to the satisfaction they get from doing good work.”
Jamie Otto, an intellectual property litigation associate with Wilson Sonsini and coordinator of the firm’s asylum program, recalls that her first asylum case was with LCCRSF nearly seven years ago when she first started at the firm. “That was my very first appearance in a courtroom as an attorney, and it was very meaningful. The client was detained, so the case moved very quickly, and we won, which is always great. The client was so grateful,” says Otto. Since 2013, Otto has continued to take on asylum cases and is currently working on open cases with three clients, in addition to advising on numerous other cases. “It is really exciting to work with LCCRSF because there is so much support. We feel so prepared because we’re provided so many materials and resources that we can rely on, and we have had an amazing success rate.”
That support includes mentorship and trainings from LCCRSF’s staff attorneys; resources, including sample forms, motions, and filings; and connections with other organizations, such as the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies that can provide further guidance. In one instance, prior to a hearing with a newly-appointed judge from the Trump administration, Otto was connected with other attorneys who had a case before the same judge and was also able to sit in on the judge’s hearings to prepare for her own hearing.
With the ongoing gutting of asylum law and precarious situation for asylum seekers in the United States, having long-term pro bono partners like Wilson Sonsini is key to our work at LCCRSF. “These cases are so important and having an attorney can really make a difference in whether or not the client wins. It’s a great way to have meaningful impact. I’ve run into clients in the community, like at Costco, and they’re still thanking me and telling me how their lives have changed. Seeing that impact has put my faith in the pro bono system and made it meaningful.”
For opportunities to get engaged in LCCRSF’s pro bono program, please contact Elica Vafaie at email@example.com.