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Lawyer Limelight: Latonia Keith

By September 2, 2014Lawyer Limelights
Photo by Anthony Tahlier

A global recession and its impact on the bottom line of law firms might well have been expected to dampen funding and enthusiasm for pro bono work. Funding, perhaps, but pro bono representation, fortunately, remains part of the emotional and professional bedrock of the practice of law. Firms may well have applied the dictum “do more with less” across the board, but the result, for pro bono work, has in many cases been that increased oversight has led to better organization, cooperation, and utilization of scarce resources.

Latonia Haney Keith, firm-wide pro bono counsel at McDermott Will & Emery in Chicago and a 2003 graduate of Harvard Law School, has been a trailblazer in the practice area, and is the immediate past president of the Association of Pro Bono Counsel.

Lawdragon: Your legal career started out just like many top law graduates from top law schools did. You landed a prestigious clerkship after law school and then worked as full time corporate law associate at a big Chicago firm. How did you end up in your role as McDermott’s Pro Bono counsel?

Latonia Keith: After clerking on the D.C. Circuit, I began my career as a finance lawyer at another AmLaw 100 law firm in Chicago. Upon joining that firm, I was very upfront that I wanted to ensure that a decent portion of my practice was pro bono as giving back to my community has always been an important part of my life. The law firm was incredibly supportive, but as with many law firms at that time, didn’t have a model or infrastructure for transactional lawyers interested in engaging in a diverse pro bono practice. So, through its support, I built my own pro bono practice, which helped me develop relationships with the public interest community both within and outside of Chicago. It was through those connections that I learned about the position at McDermott.

At the time, I was not planning to leave my current firm nor was I seeking to shift careers. I was however curious about this unique opportunity, and when McDermott offered me the position, I had a big decision to make. Though it was a difficult decision, McDermott through its spirit of entrepreneurship offered me a chance to build a pro bono practice, and it was an opportunity that I just couldn’t pass up.

LD: Being a pro bono counsel for a law firm or a corporation sounds like a really interesting career path for lawyers. Are there more opportunities of this kind out there than there was before? How do you pursue a career in this area?

LK: Thankfully, the pro bono counsel profession continues to grow. Since I came into my position at the beginning of 2008, the number of pro bono counsel has more than doubled with over 150 pro bono professionals at large law firms. As it is still a new profession, it is difficult to articulate how to pursue such a career as many pro bono counsel have come from very diverse backgrounds. However, exhibiting a commitment to access to justice is probably foremost on the list, followed closely by possessing strong legal, management, and communications skills. It is also very helpful to have actual law firm experience as understanding the dynamics and pressures unique to a law firm is a key component to success.

LD: Describe to us what it is that a dedicated pro bono counsel at an 1,100-lawyer firm like McDermott do on a day-to-day basis.

LK: As with many jobs, there is no typical day. But the best way to describe my role is that it is very similar to any other practice group leader of a large law firm practice. Building a pro bono practice requires development and implementation of a particular strategy, which in turn requires a focus on business development – building and maintaining relationships with the legal aid and public interest community to bring in the type of work you want for your practice. It requires managing the ethical and risk management issues involved in running a law practice, managing resources and budgets, overseeing at a high level all engagements within the practice and aligning the practice with the firm’s overall strategy. The unique aspects of managing a pro bono practice include acting as a salesperson by identifying opportunities that align with your attorneys’ interests or expertise and selling those opportunities to your attorneys, as well as managing a practice that involves almost every legal discipline that you can imagine in many jurisdictions across the globe. And, for those of us who still practice, our role also involves supervising and managing our own pro bono caseloads.

LD: You’re currently the president of the board of the Association of Pro Bono Counsel (APBCo), which has about 135 members or so. Tell us a little bit about the organization and how it has grown over the years and the role it now plays in generating more pro bono interest among law firms and fostering corporate citizenship.

LK: It is truly an honor to now be the immediate past president of APBCo, which is a membership organization of over 135 attorneys and practice group managers who run pro bono practices in more than 85 of the world’s largest law firms.  APBCo was formed in 2007 as predominately a professional development organization for the very few pro bono counsel at that time to provide an opportunity for those counsel to collaborate and work together to build law firm pro bono practices. Today, APBCo continues to be a platform for collaboration among pro bono counsel and now serves as the voice of the law firm pro bono community, weighing in on issues that impact law firm pro bono, such as immigration reform, state pro bono requirements, and the appropriate measurement of law firm pro bono performance.

In addition, in September 2012, the APBCo board, along with the managing partners of the board member firms, were invited to a meeting in the White House with Vice President Joe Biden to discuss issues of access to justice. With the Vice President’s enthusiasm for our mission, APBCo launched its IMPACT initiative across the country by convening community leaders to develop innovative approaches to addressing issues such as safe and affordable housing, re-entry to society after incarceration, domestic violence, homelessness, and financial security.

LD: You’ve written and spoken about some of the challenges that many transactional lawyers encounter when it comes to finding and doing interesting and high-impact pro bono work as opposed to their litigation counterparts. How have you addressed these challenges at your firm and what advice would you give other firms in terms of providing more pro bono opportunities to their transactional lawyers?

LK: Historically, pro bono opportunities required litigation experience or at least comfort within a litigation setting, and it has remained challenging to identify substantive opportunities for transactional lawyers (though this reality improves year after year). As a transactional lawyer myself, I think it is important to understand that transactional lawyers have unique talents to bring to the table to assist with closing the justice gap. As such, my approach has been to both utilize the skills inherent in our transactional law practices as well as creatively match either skills or interest in opportunities.

Leveraging transactional lawyers to provide corporate, employment, tax and regulatory advice to legal aid, social services and other charitable organizations, for example, allows those organizations to focus on the critical services they provide to the poor without having their corporate structure crumble around them. Moreover, while it is true that many transactional lawyers are not comfortable with stepping foot into a courtroom, there are many other ways in which to assist underprivileged communities without requiring a litigator. McDermott’s corporate and health lawyers, for example, have embraced the APBCo IMPACT Second Chance Initiative, which addresses a critical legal need assisting individuals in Chicago who are facing barriers to employment because of past criminal records and does not require a litigator. Another example is with our patent prosecution attorneys for whom a key skill in that practice group is pulling together the requisite information to successfully apply for a patent. We translated that skill into assisting victims of and witnesses to crimes with securing immigration status within the United States by pulling together the information necessary to file for a U-Visa.

LD: Everyone knows that there’s a critical shortage of public funding right now for legal aid, who or what sector of the population has been most affected by this lack of funding among those who require legal aid?

LK: With the economic collapse, more and more people are falling into poverty every day and cannot afford to pay for the legal assistance that they need. Meanwhile, federal, state and local governments are slashing funding for legal aid at the same time that law firms, corporations and individuals, mindful of expenses in a world of economic uncertainty, are likewise retrenching. Put simply, access to justice for the underprivileged and disadvantaged is at stake across the board. This funding crisis though is leading to a phenomenon in which legal aid resources are understandably focused on the truly indigent (though by no means remedying that gap), and as such, there are little to no resources available to serve those who may not be classified as indigent but nevertheless cannot afford legal counsel. As such, the legal aid and public interest community is actively seeking creative ways in which to generate sufficient funding.

One source of critical funding that I am working to draw attention to is through cy pres awards – residual funds from class action litigation that, for various reasons, are unclaimed or cannot be distributed to the class members. Federal and state courts have long recognized legal services organizations as appropriate beneficiaries of cy pres distributions, which can be a crucial funding mechanism for ensuring access to justice.

LD: You’ve written extensively about trends in pro bono work. What’s the future like in terms of opportunities and challenges that lawyers like you are facing in pushing for more ways for lawyers to be active in this area and really make an impact?

LK: The economic recession has altered law firm practice in many ways, requiring law firms to operate as leanly as possible. Given the billable-hour demands in law firms, it will remain a challenge to encourage lawyers to stretch themselves, managing full billable workloads with pro bono and many other necessary activities, such as business development, professional development, writing and speaking, and more. However, McDermott and many other firms have remained clear that despite these challenges pro bono is a critical component of law firm culture. As such, navigating the issues inherent in this “new normal” for law firms will require creativity and a recognition of the reality of large law firm practice.

The APBCo IMPACT initiative is a great example of how to address this issue. Through IMPACT, many of the cities decided to utilize the clinic model. While not a new approach, it still an innovative way of more efficiently leveraging resources provided by law firms and legal services organizations to address the legal needs of multiple clients. Moreover, increasingly leveraging technology to reach more individuals and communities and continuing to work closely with the judiciary and government to make systematic changes will help in navigating the evolving law firm environment and preserving and expanding the impact that law firm pro bono has on narrowing the justice gap.

LD: Outside your legal work, what are you passionate about?

LK: I’m passionate about my two children ages seven and four. It is truly amazing to see the world through their eyes – the excitement of riding an airplane, the peals of laughter running through a sprinkler, the sense of awe when seeing the White House, and the lack of fear when faced with a steep downhill ski slope. As they both have inherited my love for reading, it is such a pleasure to read the classic Harriett the Spy and the modern story Iggy Peck the Architect with them. Though I sometimes fear they are growing up too quickly, I’m excited to see what each new year brings.

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