Pro Bono and Social Change

This post is my contribution to a collective pledge made by over 30 bloggers to honor the work of volunteer attorneys during National Celebrate Pro Bono Week.  Thanks to Kate Bladow of for organizing!


Pro bono publico - "For the public good."

When I was a staff attorney at the Urban Justice Center, I used to tell my pro bono co-counsel that the cases we were working on together were helping to empower low-income immigrant communities to fight for justice and create social change. My co-counsel usually nodded politely, though I'm sure they were also trying to figure out how they had been saddled with a starry-eyed idealistic legal services lawyer with delusions of grandeur when all they wanted was a simple pro bono case to work on.

Though it may be hard to imagine, pro bono attorneys do have the potential to contribute to movments for social change, even through what might appear to be run-of-the-mill pro bono matters. The trick is to find a grassroots, movement-building organization that needs legal help. Or, just find yourself a starry-eyed, idealistic legal services lawyer - preferably one who works somewhere that has an institutional vision that supports community- and movement-building.

Don't believe me? Read on and decide for yourself.

I Will Suffer in Silence No More

Estella came from southern Africa, leaving her parents and her young daughter behind for the promise of a decent salary and a college education, and the belief that her employer - a tennis instructor in an affluent New York City suburb - would someday help her bring her daughter to the U.S. as well. She was to be a live-in nanny for her employer's 2 year-old son, and she was promised meals and her own room. Instead, what greeted her upon her arrival in the United States was 7-day work week, 18 hours per day that involved not only caring for the 2 year-old, but also doing laundry, cooking and cleaning for her employer and his father. Instead of her own room, she was given a thin mattress on the floor behind the couch in the living room, where her employer would come in late at night to use the computer or watch TV while she was trying to sleep. Estella's employer only paid her $250 per month for her work - when he decided to pay her at all. When she complained of her work conditions and not receiving her pay, her employer threatened to have her deported.

Attorneys at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP agreed to co-counsel with me on Estella's case. We filed an action in federal court for unpaid minimum wages and overtime pay, and after hundreds of hours of pro bono work that included court conferences and several depositions, the case settled and Estella received $45,000. Estella also joined Domestic Wokers United, a grassroots advocacy organization in New York City, and found her voice. She became a vocal spokesperson for the rights of all domestic workers, and her story became a crucial part of convincing the New York City Council that it needed to take action to protect this workforce. In May of 2003, the New York City Council passed a bill requiring job placement agencies licensed by the city to advise domestic workers and their potential employers of the federal and state labor laws that protect all workers. This was the first law of its kind in the nation and helped to raise the public's awareness of the conditions that many immigrant women in the industry face.

 You Can't SLAPP* the Nannies
(*Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation)

Domestic Workers United members meet every month in a church in Brooklyn. Scores of immigrant women from Africa, Central and South America, Asia and the Carribean have gathered monthly for over 10 years to share food, share their stories of workplace exploitation, and to take comfort in the presence of other immigrant women who understand the heartbreaking homesickness of a wife and mother who has to leave her family behind to find work. When the members of DWU come together, they also strategize and talk about their plans for achieving their vision of a world where all workers in all industries are treated with respect and dignity. In an organization whose members are almost all immigrant women, their power has always been in their collective voice and in their willingness to speak out

When the members of DWU learned of the case of Cindy, who was physically assaulted by her employer in Long Island, they took action. Cindy, who was working as a nanny and housekeeper, was physically assaulted and pushed to the ground by one of her employers outside of the employers' home as neighbors looked on. Cindy would later reveal that her employers were underpaying her in violation of labor laws, and that she was routinely subjected to verbal abuse and racial eptithets. The employer was later allowed to plead guilty to misdemeanor harassment, and she and her husband denied mistreating Cindy or taking advantage of her.

DWU mobilized their members and organized caravans to Long Island, called press conferences, and gathered outside Cindy's employers' home to demand justice. The employers retaliated by filing a defamation suit against DWU. For organizations like DWU, who rarely have large budgets and never have counsel on retainer, retaliatory suits to prevent public speech can destabilize an organization and pose a serious threat to their continued ability to organize and raise the public's consciousness

The law firm of Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP took on DWU as a pro bono client and defended the organization against the defamation suit. Attorneys from Weil Gotshal quickly filed and won a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, averting litigation that could potentially have drained DWU's resources and possibly destroyed the organization. More importantly, Weil Gotshal's defense of DWU protected the right of all abused and exploited workers to speak out about the conditions they endured.

Making History in Albany

 In September 2010, domestic workers in New York celebrated a historic victory as Governor Paterson signed the first legislation in the country to extend human rights and labor law protections to nannies, housekeepers, babbysitters and elder companions. Entitled "The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights," passage of the bill marked the culmination of a six-year campaign to correct the historical exclusion of domestic workers from civil rights and labor laws that most of us take for granted. Because of this law, for the first time, domestic workers cannot be discriminated against because of race, ethnicity, gender or nationality, and will receive certain basic labor protections.

The victory was well-deserved. For six years, DWU not only mobilized domestic workers, they mobilized allies in labor unions, student groups, farmworkers, and even their own employers to call for the passage of workplace protections for domestic workers. Over the years, DWU members took days off from work to organize and lead bus caravans to Albany to speak to legislators, to tell their stories of exploitation and abuse, and to make it clear that they were not going to give up.

The passage of the Bill of Rights was never a foregone conclusion. Even the formidable energy, passion and determination of the women of DWU was not enough to win in Albany - a state capital that has become known nationally for its political dysfunction and legislative gridlock. Despite the tireless efforts of members of DWU, despite the tremendous work by law students from NYU, despite countless phone calls to legislators and petitions signed by supporters, the future of the Bill was uncertain until a veteran attorney with years of experience navigating the halls of the state capitol agreed to provide pro bono assistance to DWU.

While the members of DWU were telling their stories on the steps of the state capitol, Richard Winsten of Myer, Suozzi, English & Klein, P.C. was drafting and redrafting the bill, arguing points of law with legislative staffers and state agency officials, and helping guide the Bill of Rights through the seemingly impenetrable gauntlet of Albany politics. Through his dedication and commitment, Wintsen helped turn the vision that DWU members had held onto for so many years into reality, and in so doing, has played an integral role in sparking a domestic worker movement that is gaining momentum across the country.

The Ripple Effect

Sometimes seemingly small acts that go largely unnoticed in the scheme of things can have a profound impact when you add them together. The associates from Simpson Thacher not only secured a financial settlement for one immigrant worker, they helped give Estella the courage to speak up for all the women who have similarly suffered exploitation and abuse. Without stories like Estella's, the New York City Council would likely never have passed legislation, and might never have urged Albany to take action to protect domestic workers. The attorneys at Weil Gotshal may have thought that they were defending against a routine SLAPP case, but the organization and the speech they were protecting have paved the way for historic legislation in New York that extends critical legal protections to this excluded workforce. And Richard Winsten of Meyer Suozzi hasn't just helped to pass a law in one state. Legislators are considering similar legislation to extend labor protections to domestic workers in California, and domestic worker organizations in other states are building on the momentum sparked by the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights to create a national movement that could someday lead to changes in federal law.  The efforts of workers' rights organizations, supported by attorneys like Winsten and other pro bono lawyers, aren't just changing the lives of individuals or even single industries - they're helping to transform the labor movement in the United States.

And lest you think I failed to live up to my reputation for starry-eyed idealism: this past June, due in part to the incredible momentum in the domestic workers movement in the United States, the International Labor Organization held a conference on domestic workers and began a process to create an international labor standard for domestic workers worldwide.

Pro bono publico indeed.