Kirkland & Ellis LLP allied with aggrieved minority groups and notched one civil rights victory after another over the past year, including a momentous win for same-sex marriage at the Seventh Circuit, scoring the BigLaw powerhouse a spot among Law360's Pro Bono Firms of 2014.
The firm’s triumphs benefited a wide spectrum of clients, including gays and lesbians, Hasidic Jews, historically black universities and immigrants who’ve been victims of violence. Though not mandatory, pro bono work on average occupied almost 90 hours of time for every U.S.-based Kirkland attorney — nearly 120,000 hours total across the country.
That time counts fully toward billable hour credit and is unlimited. Pro bono activities are overseen by a management committee that applies certain criteria, but lawyers are otherwise given wide berth to pursue their philanthropic passions.
“It’s really quite free-form,” said Marjorie Press Lindblom, the committee’s co-chair. “We have lots of people who are interested in lots of different things.”
A prominent theme of the past year’s work was gay rights advocacy, and the most prominent success in that area came at the Seventh Circuit, where Judge Richard A. Posner authored a widely remarked-upon opinion axing bans on same-sex marriage in Indiana and Wisconsin.
That decision, which the U.S. Supreme Court this month declined to review, was notable both for extending same-sex marriage rights to new states and for being authored by a right-leaning and highly influential judge. Further, it introduced a higher standard of judicial scrutiny into the Seventh Circuit for reviewing disparate treatment of gays and lesbians, which has implications for future lawsuits.
“That’s going to make a difference for many other laws and cases in the future because of that holding,” said Jordan Mitchell Heinz, part of the Kirkland team that litigated the suit along with Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund Inc.
Elsewhere in the gay rights arena, Kirkland saw an 18-month legal battle against Illinois’ same-sex marriage ban bear fruit when the state’s governor in November signed a bill authorizing such nuptials.
However, with that law not set to take effect until June, some couples with one terminally ill partner were at risk of not being able to wed. In response, Kirkland filed suit again and quickly prevailed, allowing marriages to commence months earlier than expected.
Lindblom recalled a subsequent pro bono reception in Chicago, where a Lambda official read aloud a note of gratitude from a woman who was able to marry before her partner passed away in March.
“I have to tell you, the whole room was in tears after reading this email,” Lindblom said.
On a separate front, a team of Kirkland lawyers — led by David Flugman and Frank M. Holozubiec — helped convince the Third Circuit to uphold New Jersey’s ban on so-called gay conversion therapy. The controversial counseling, which leading mental health societies condemn, is aimed at convincing gay people that homosexuality can and should be “cured.”
“It’s essentially religious doctrine masquerading as science,” Lindblom said.
Along with California, New Jersey is one of the only states in the country to have outlawed conversion therapy. The Third Circuit’s decision joins a similar ruling from the Ninth Circuit, and the outcomes suggest that other states will be on solid ground if they also ban the therapy.
“It does help set a precedent, and David and Frank’s work in New Jersey is going to have a ripple effect if other laws are challenged in other courts,” Heinz said.
While Kirkland’s pro bono efforts have at times pitted it against faith-based groups, the firm has also fought recently on behalf of religious interests. One notable example came with its representation of Brooklyn businesses owned by Hasidic Jews who were sued by the New York City Commission on Human Rights over dress codes that allegedly discriminated on the basis of gender and creed.
Kirkland pushed back aggressively in defense of the codes, which read, “No Shorts, No Barefoot, No Sleeveless, No Low-Cut Neckline Allowed In This Store.” The firm’s lawyers pointed to the policies of fine dining restaurants that require men to wear jackets and ties, asking how the Hasidic codes were any different.
“If you’re the Four Seasons restaurant and you just believe in decorum, that’s OK, but if you’re religious and believe in modesty, that’s suspect,” Kirkland partner Jay P. Lefkowitz told Law360.
The commission earlier this year dropped the matter after the stores agreed to post language making clear that all visitors — not just Orthodox Jews — who abide by the dress code are welcome, a move widely seen as a win for the owners.
“This was just really a kind of shocking departure from what [commission officials] normally do,” Lefkowitz said.
Elsewhere, a Kirkland team led by partner Michael D. Jones last year won a major discrimination suit accusing Maryland’s higher education system of intentionally undermining historically black universities by duplicating their best offerings at other schools, hindering enrollment at the black colleges.
In October 2013, U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake sided with challengers after finding that state policies were having “segregative effects as to which the state has not established sound educational justification.”
The two sides ever since have been negotiating terms of a possible settlement, but Judge Blake this month said she’ll expect briefing if the parties can’t agree on remedies by early next year.
Although the highlights of Kirkland’s recent pro bono work generated extensive news coverage, those wins represented only a small fraction of the firm’s charitable lawyering. Much of the no-fee legal assistance has been devoted to less-conspicuous battles, such as advocating for military veterans in disputes with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, helping victimized immigrants obtain so-called U Visas and shepherding lower-income women through the courts in uncontested divorce proceedings.
Kirkland takes pride in high-profile victories, but the relatively ordinary successes are rewarding in their own way, helping guide everyday people who find themselves in difficult circumstances but are “terribly intimidated by the court system,” Lindblom said.
“We’re very proud of those,” she said of major court wins, “but we also have hundreds of attorneys working on other matters that may not be as splashy, but [which] have a huge impact on the lives of the clients.”
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