Summer Service: MoFo Pro Bono Clinics Help Clients Throughout the U.S. and Beyond

As part of their work as Morrison & Foerster’s pro bono counsel, Jennifer Brown, Dorothy Fernandez, and Rachel Williams coordinate the firm’s participation in clinics that offer free legal services and other resources to worthy causes and people in need. Here are descriptions of some of the important work that MoFo volunteers recently performed at clinics over the summer–efforts that are emblematic of MoFo’s commitment to community service and public interest work.

San Francisco Asylum with Autodesk

In June, Rachel organized an asylum clinic that took place in MoFo’s San Francisco office with Centro Legal de la Raza, a legal services organization based in Oakland.

The clinic’s participants included a MoFo summer associate, five MoFo lawyers, and a lawyer and legal interns from the software company Autodesk, which is a firm client. The volunteers were able to help five clients who had fled persecution and violence in their home countries prepare their applications for asylum in the United States.

“Asylum seekers have to file an application within one year of their arrival in the United States, unless they prove eligible for certain exceptions,” Rachel explains. “Unfortunately, due to overwhelming demand for free or affordable immigration help, many asylum seekers cannot find counsel who can commit to representing them throughout their case, so they are in danger of missing that filing deadline. At the clinic, we work with clients to prepare applications so they can file them before that deadline.”

The clients, who were from Central America and Mexico, were directed to the asylum clinic through Centro Legal de la Raza, which provided the clinic with a supervising attorney who is an expert in immigration law and an experienced immigration paralegal.

After getting trained in asylum law, volunteers assembled into small teams, each of which included a MoFo lawyer and an interpreter. Then it was time for the interviews.

“It’s an in-depth meeting with each client for several hours,” Rachel describes. “These volunteers heard the clients’ sometimes horrific stories of violence and other terrible experiences. It can get intense and emotional.”

At the end of the day, the pro bono lawyers and summer interns parted ways with their clients, and the Centro Legal de la Raza paralegal accompanied the asylum seekers to court to file the applications that the clinic’s volunteers prepared. From there, the long and complicated U.S. immigration process for the asylum seekers began.

Legal Services NYC Naturalization Clinic in Partnership with Prudential

A clinic organized by Jennifer in the New York office on May 30 helped pro bono clients who are further along in the immigration process–permanent residents who are applying for naturalization as U.S. citizens. For this clinic, the firm partnered with lawyers and other professionals from Prudential, a MoFo client where MoFo alumna Leda Moloff is a corporate counsel, and the training sessions were conducted by Legal Services NYC, where MoFo alumnus Adam Heintz now works as the director of pro bono services.

MoFo will continue to represent the eight clients who got their naturalization applications underway on the day of the clinic. Jennifer explained that applying for naturalization often takes more than a single step. “For example, most of these clients are eligible to have their naturalization fees waived by the government, but the government is now rejecting a lot of applications for fee waivers or demanding more evidence of the clients’ low income. We help the clients with issues like that.” MoFo lawyers will also prepare clients for their naturalization interviews and attend the interviews with them. In New York, these typically take place about a year after the application is fully submitted.

Associate Amanda Gayer’s client from a similar clinic held with Prudential in 2018 recently passed her interview and was naturalized. Reflecting on the experience, Amanda said: “Guiding a client through the naturalization process has been a rewarding experience. Legal assistance gave her support and reassurance, and helped to prevent errors, setbacks and delays. It has been a privilege to collaborate and build a relationship with the client, who put a great deal of time and hard work toward this achievement.”

IMPACT LA Clinic at the Jenesse Center

For the fifth year in a row, summer associates and attorneys from MoFo’s Los Angeles office volunteered at the IMPACT LA Clinic, which advises domestic violence survivors on housing, immigration, and benefits questions.

IMPACT LA is coordinated by OneJustice, a California-wide nonprofit, and takes place in conjunction with the work of the Jenesse Center, the oldest domestic violence intervention center in South Los Angeles. MoFo got involved in the clinic because Jennifer, Dorothy, and Rachel are members of the Association of Pro Bono Counsel (APBCo). “Involving More Pro Bono Attorneys in Our Communities Together” (IMPACT) projects, which combine the efforts of several law firms in one city, are the result of a meeting held in 2012 among then-Vice President Joe Biden, APBCo board members, and senior management of the board members’ firms to discuss how law firm pro bono could better meet community needs.

Many domestic violence survivors face hurdles in getting back on their feet after leaving abusive relationships. They may find themselves in changed living situations or with limited financial resources. Volunteers at the IMPACT LA clinic work with survivors to access legal resources on issues such as immigration status, avoiding homelessness, or applying for government benefits. For instance, “sometimes an abuser uses a survivors’ undocumented status as a weapon,” Dorothy explains. Abusers may threaten to call immigration authorities if their partner reports the abuse. “So we work with the survivors to see if they might be eligible for immigration relief, in particular U visas, which are for survivors of serious crimes like physical abuse.”

While MoFo attorneys also staff the LA IMPACT clinic at other times during the year, the summer session allows summer associates to get a real taste of the firm’s pro bono program and to see firsthand some of the issues our community members face and how law firms can play a role in closing the access to justice gap.

The AFFORD Business Club (ABC) Clinic in London

In the firm’s London office, MoFo lawyers conduct clinics in partnership with nonprofit African Foundation for Development (AFFORD) for AFFORD’s Business Club (ABC), which supports the African-focused business community in the UK. The clinics’ objective: to encourage development in African countries by providing free legal counsel to small businesses that either operate in Africa and have a presence in the UK or operate in the UK and somehow benefit Africa by, for example, investing in areas of African development or agriculture.

MoFo associate Jason Mbakwe and senior of counsel Howard Morris are two of the clinic’s main participants.

“There are a lot of people of recent African heritage who are living in the UK for a time and are forming businesses here. It’s very expensive. They need some support,” says Howard. “We provide that support where the business has a connection with Africa, so you’ll get somebody who’s, for example, selling a product in the UK and they’re sourcing it from Nigeria.”

In September 2018, MoFo lawyers in London kicked off the program with a seminar that addressed key areas of law that apply to the businesses run by ABC’s members.

Since then, in one-on-one, half-hour-long sessions, the clinics’ volunteers have been addressing legal questions submitted by ABC members in advance. The most recent of those sessions took place in July 2019.

Jason and Howard report that questions have ranged from “What is the best way to protect a business’ intellectual property in both Africa and the UK?” to “What is the best way to comply with the GDPR?”

“Lawyers from across all the disciplines in the London office deploy to provide tax support, labor law support, corporate support, and litigation support,” says Howard. “They’ll explain how to form a business and the advantages of being a limited liability company over being a sole trader, for example. In addition, a number of the MoFo lawyers who are involved in the clinic are of African heritage themselves. Their familiarity with the economic and cultural issues involved certainly helps.”

Nonprofit Governance Policies Clinic

Northern Virginia partner Tom Knox also found himself teaching an organization how to navigate the law one morning this summer, but in his case, it was a nonprofit client: The Neighborhood Legal Services Program in Washington, D.C.

Tom met the client at the Nonprofit Governance Policies Clinic, organized by the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program and hosted by MoFo’s Washington, D.C., office for several summers. This year, the D.C. Bar teamed up MoFo lawyers with members of the legal department at the energy company Exelon to help local nonprofits with their basic conflict of interest, document retention, and whistleblower protection policies.

“A lawyer from the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center conducted a training for the lawyers in the morning,” Jennifer describes, “and then the lawyers met up with the nonprofit organizations to revise or comment on those organizations’ existing policies or work with them to create new policies based on a template from the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center.”

While Tom’s client is itself a legal organization, Jennifer explained that it still needed a lawyer’s help. “It’s typical of nonprofits to be short on the time and resources necessary to attend to corporate governance matters. They’re busy running their programs and helping people.”

Download a copy of our MoProBono newsletter to learn more about inspiring pro bono matters that MoFo lawyers haven taken on this year.

MoFo New York corporate partner Dario de Martino (left) and corporate associates Joan Kim (center) and Jenny Wang (far right) offer legal services to members of the community during one of the firm’s many summer pro bono legal clinics.