Pro Bono Ambassador: Akin Gump
Each summer, a select group of law students from some of the most prestigious schools in the nation have interned with the international law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP. Since 2007, among the various projects its summer associates are assigned, Akin Gump hosts a firm-wide project in which each summer associate has the opportunity to help battered immigrant women obtain permanent U.S. residency under the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (“VAWA”) and to work with female victims of domestic abuse and violent crimes, many of whom are immigrants.
For these summer associates, it’s a rare opportunity to help these women find legal relief under the VAWA. For immigrants who have been threatened with deportation by their tormenters, VAWA is a path to legal residency and the right to work.
The summer associates help clients prepare documentation, prep them for questioning and accompany them to interviews. It’s an opportunity to see first-hand how pro bono provides indigent care. By the end of the summer, the VAWA applications are filed with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
More than that, it’s an opportunity for the summer associates to know they made a positive difference in the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in our society. How cool is that? It gives profound meaning to the age-old question posed to anyone returning to school: “So what did you do for summer vacation?”
Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston is one of several agencies that Akin Gump’s summer associates work with nationally, but it is the only one in Houston. The program is also in Akin Gump’s Dallas, Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C. offices. Since the program’s inception in 2007, Akin Gump has helped more than 200 VAWA applicants in the five cities—about 35 in Houston, according to Washington-based Steven H. Schulman, the Akin Gump partner who heads up the firm’s global pro bono practice.
Akin Gump’s 11 Houston summer associates were from the University of Texas, University of Houston, Tulane University, and Duke. Besides working on VAWA cases, the summer associates are incorporated into the firm’s general caseload.
Because VAWA cases typically take many months, the summer associates are broken into teams, each led by one of Akin Gump’s local attorneys. The attorneys carry the VAWA cases to their conclusion. As a result, there’s a great deal of institutional memory built into the process, which not only makes onboarding summer associates easier, but is a great benefit to the agency. It’s a model Catholic Charities hopes to emulate with some of its other pro bono partners.
“Their teams are really wonderful,” said Elise Griesmeyer, Catholic Charities Cabrini Center’s Crime Victims Supervisor. “Because they’ve been doing it for years, they have so much institutional knowledge. They’re really good about coaching these summer associates through the cases and following through. The cases last much longer than the three months that the students will be with them, but they maintain responsibility for the cases — some of them up to two years.”
“[We] split up into VAWA teams and give the [summer associates] a chance to dig in and see how much the community is influenced by pro bono,” said Cynthia Perez Angell, Akin Gump’s Houston associate who currently spearheads the summer program. “We have a great model and a great success rate.”
The firm’s track record of excellence in pro bono advocacy for some of the most vulnerable individuals in our community has continued in full force through Angell’s leadership and that of other experienced colleagues, including Jamie Duncan, Michael Reeder, and Rehan Safiullah. These attorneys have remained active in the program throughout the years.
Angell exemplifies the depth of institutional knowledge and pro bono commitment at Akin Gump. As she notes, “I was involved in the VAWA project as a summer associate myself before joining the firm, and am thrilled to now have an opportunity to play a role in introducing others to this tremendous experience.”