Pro Bono Spotlight: Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLC

A History of More than Fifty Years of Partnership, Commitment and Collaboration

The partnership between Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP (“Pillsbury”) and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (“LCCRSF”) begins with the organization’s birth. During the civil rights movement of the sixties, lawyers around the country in major metropolitan areas began developing committees to fight for racial justice.

In San Francisco, Pillsbury Chair Jack Sutro and Pillsbury attorney Charles Renfrew, who later became the United States District Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, were amongst the leaders of the Bay Area legal community who founded LCCRSF in 1968 as a voice for civil and constitutional rights. Pillsbury went on to become one of the first law firms in San Francisco to run a pro bono program. Today, Pillsbury advances critical pro bono work across LCCRSF’s Racial, Economic and Immigrant justice programs, stepping up their leadership during the COVID19 pandemic and with the uprising and movement to end police brutality and fight for Black lives.

“I remember the very first day that I passed the bar exam was a Monday. In the eighties, LCCRSF had Tuesday night clinic and so the next day I received my first two pro bono cases. Our major pro bono partner was always the Lawyers’ Committee,” said Thomas Loran, who is a partner of Pillsbury and has also served as the pro bono chair of the firm and a board member of LCCRSF. “I spent hundreds of hours on eviction cases in the 80’s and 90’s.”

Since the partnership began over fifty years ago, dozens of attorneys have spent thousands of hours working on pro bono cases. “LCCRSF has given me a great opportunity to try to realize my own personal and professional goals,” said Loran, who has mentored people in the pro bono program for over 23 years. “LCCRSF is one of the key organizations that we partner with. It’s very important that we support this organization’s work that is critical to the Bay Area. That’s why I’m doing it.”

Jacob Sorensen’s story with LCCRSF begins similarly to Loran’s: When he began practicing law in 2000, some of his first cases were also during the Tuesday night clinics to assist clients who faced evictions.

“As a young lawyer, my first big responsibility in cases were Lawyers’ Committee cases,” says Sorensen, who is currently a Board Member of LCCRSF and a partner at Pillsbury. “It’s a rite of passage at Pillsbury to work on these cases. It’s so important and valuable to our younger lawyers as they think about how they want to fit into the legal community and their place in the world. A big part is doing good for society and using the power we have to effectuate change. LCCRSF gives us tremendous opportunity to do that.”

Continuing the Fight for Racial Justice

More than fifty years later, LCCRSF and Pillsbury are working to dismantle the many manifestations of institutionalized racism and the oppression of Black communities and other people of color in groundbreaking civil rights cases and legal clinics. Pillsbury provides staff for LCCRSF’s GLIDE Unconditional Clinic, which assists low-income and homeless people with legal needs, and the Bail Clinic, which helps clients with bail bonds issues, many who are saddled with tremendous debt after using private bail bonds companies to get themselves or a loved one out of jail.

“In 2020, the work’s more important than ever, and our long history of partnership gives people the perfect opportunity to get involved in an issue that so many are rightfully concerned about,” says Sorensen, who provides supervisorial support to the two clinics. “For people who want to get involved, get involved.”

Recently, Pillsbury, LCCRSF, and other co-counsel successfully won a class action litigation, Hernandez v. DMV, to end the practice of license suspension for those who are unable to pay traffic fees or who are unable to appear in court. Those who lose their driver’s licenses for such reasons are disproportionately low-income people of color whose license was a lifeline for transportation to work, childcare, and medical appointments. Pillsbury continues their work on racial justice with LCCRSF with an upcoming report highlighting the inherent racism in criminalization of non-criminal behavior and advocating for policies to limit low-level policing and reduce police budgets.

Protecting Asylum Seekers: “It’s our responsibility.”

Since 1983, LCCRSF’s Asylum Program has provided legal representation for refugees who have escaped persecution and torture in their native countries, bridging the gap between the Bay Area’s private bar and impoverished asylum seekers. The Lawyers’ Committee is regularly contacted by asylum seekers who have suffered persecution but are unable to afford attorneys to assist them in navigating the confusing and oppressive immigration process. More and more, representing asylum seekers has become central to pro bono work between LCCRSF and Pillsbury, which Sorensen describes as among the most powerful in his career. LCCRSF staff provides training, mentorship, and ongoing support to successfully represent asylum seekers and attorneys who have had little or no immigration law experience are able to successfully take an asylum case from beginning to end.

Pillsbury Associate Nan McGarry first began doing pro bono work as an opportunity to learn something new about the law in service of others while also working at a firm; she has been working on an asylum case with Loran and another colleague for the past year, including supporting the initial meeting with the client, client declaration, legal research, overseeing the brief that was being drafted, and securing experts.

“I know so much more about asylum law than I ever did before. And as a junior attorney it was cool to see the process of seeking out an expert for the case, which is such a technical legal issue. [LCCRSF Immigrant Justice Attorney] Flora was helping us navigate that process, and once we did locate an expert, the firm was great at securing the financial resources needed for the case,” says McGarry on the support and partnership of LCCRSF and Pillsbury. “Flora also worked with me to develop an appropriate timeline about what it looks like to get up to the day of the hearing and helped us craft the case. Immigration law is very complicated and ever changing and she was useful and helpful in guiding us what are the particular legal theories that match our client’s story. She made us cohesive in an asylum-oriented team.”

“At LCCRSF, I co-counsel a number of asylum cases with pro bono attorney teams at Pillsbury. Our partnership exponentially increases our ability to ensure that as many asylum-seekers as possible have access to an attorney, which has a massive impact on the outcome of asylum cases,” said Flora Pereira Immigrant Justice Staff Attorney at LCCRSF. “Second, our collaboration with Pillsbury helps us ensure that asylum-seekers receive committed, zealous, resource-backed representation. When Pillsbury is on a case, I know our mutual clients will benefit from tenacious legal research, investigative case development, the engagement of experts from all over the world, and countless other tools to help them win their cases. And I know that if an adjudicator misapplies the law and unjustly denies our clients the protections they are lawfully entitled to, the fight won’t stop there. Pillsbury will demand a fair review at various levels until our clients achieve the outcomes they deserve.”

 With the U.S. asylum system under attack by the Trump administration, Pillsbury is also assisting LCCRSF with drafting a public comment to oppose new asylum regulations that would allow for the automatic denial of asylum to any individual in the U.S. who has contracted the virus — or even if they hail from or have passed through a country where COVID-19 exists.

 “With asylum cases, somebody’s life is on the line. And if our clients have the resilience to come to this country, seek an attorney, and share their story within weeks of having met them, we as attorneys have a responsibility to honor that strength and resilience by using the skills we have to make their voice heard,” McGarry says, emphasizing the importance of taking on such work. “Any case is a partnership between a client and attorney. The client brings something to their table – the story, knowledge, experiences and we bring another set of skills – a legal set of skills. It’s part of our responsibility as attorneys to give, recognizing we can amplify their voices.”

For opportunities to get engaged in pro bono work with LCCRSF, please contact Elica Vafaie at evafaie@lccrsf.org.