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Kirkland Donates $12.5M in Legal Fees from Maryland HBCU Case to Schools and Civil Rights Orgs

Kirkland & Ellis was awarded statutory attorney fees as part of a $577 million settlement the state reached with the firm’s clients, a coalition of students, faculty and alumni of Maryland’s four public historically Black colleges and universities.

When it comes to pro bono efforts, it’s hard to top the decade-plus of work Kirkland & Ellis put into representing a coalition of students, alumni, and faculty at Maryland’s four historically Black colleges and universities. After logging more than 38,000 hours on the case since 2009, including two multiweek trials and a trip to the Fourth Circuit, the firm and co-counsel at Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law reached a $577 million settlement with the state earlier this year that will fund new, unique programs at the schools: Morgan State University, Bowie State University and Coppin State University in Baltimore, and the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore. Kirkland’s Mike Jones, who spearheaded the case, landed Litigator of the Week honors back in May after the federal judge overseeing the case signed off on the deal.

Well, this doesn’t quite top all that, but it’s definitely a cherry on top.

Kirkland this morning announced the firm is donating the $12.5 million in statutory legal fees it was awarded as part of the settlement to seven HBCUs and civil rights organizations. Among the recipients are the Dillard University Center for Racial Justice in New Orleans, which will receive $5 million, the Robert M. Bell Center for Civil Rights in Education, which is set to receive $3 million, and Kirkland’s co-counsel in the case at the Lawyers’ Committee, which will get $2 million.

The Lawyers’ Committee donation is of particular note since it’s set to establish a Kirkland Fellowships fund to provide opportunities in civil rights litigation and policy work for HBCU law school students, undergraduates and alumni. Jon Greenbaum, the chief counsel and senior deputy director for the Lawyers’ Committee who argued the case alongside Jones at the Fourth Circuit, said the Kirkland Fellowship fund is “a natural outgrowth of what we’re trying to accomplish in the case.” Details like whether the opportunities provided by the Kirkland funds will be structured as full-time paid internships or as fellowships are still being worked out. But the aim is to strengthen the HBCUs as an institution.

“The students are getting the exposure of working in an organization like ours, contributing to an organization, and then using those opportunities to further their careers,” Greenbaum said. At the same time, the fellowship could help address pipeline issues in legal civil rights organizations, which, like firms like Kirkland, have traditionally drawn talent from elite, top-ranked law schools. Greenbaum said the fellowship will help the Lawyers’ Committee “as an employer to be able to work with HBCUs to help us identify people who are talented and want to do this work.”

He’s also hopeful the Lawyers’ Committee will be able to work with Kirkland to get the word out to HBCUs, their students and alumni about the work the organization does. “Our hope is that this will certainly get us on the radar of students at the HBCUs,” he said. The fee award was triggered because the plaintiffs prevailed on a Fourteenth Amendment claim. The court found the state’s longstanding practice of duplicating academic programs offered at HBCUs rather than allowing them to offer unique programs to attract diverse applicants amounted to de jure segregation. The Lawyers’ Committee’s own lawyers put in more than 14,000 hours on the case, resulting in a fee award of its own of more than $7 million that will be used to further the organization’s mission.

At Morgan State, Pace McConkie, the director of the Robert M. Bell Center for Civil Rights in Education, said $3 million it will receive from Kirkland will provide endowment and operating funds to support its work identifying and addressing policies and practices in education that foster racial discrimination. McConkie points to the coalition of HBCU alums, students and faculty that drove the Maryland case as “a staple” of the kind of work the center will be able to do. “We will be able to use fellows and researchers and collaborate with other researchers to identify what these continuing policies and practices are and then seek remedies to put in their place,” said McConkie, who himself served in the Maryland Attorney General’s Office before the HBCU case was litigated. “The issues that were addressed in the Maryland case are not unique to Maryland,” he said. “Our historically Black institutions: Remember that they were founded in that era of segregation and Jim Crow, and are the result of official segregation. And I think everyone would agree that there are policies and practices that are traceable to and rooted in those former de jure segregated systems that are still in place.”

Kirkland’s Jones is on both the giving and receiving end of Thursday’s donation announcement because he also serves as the chair of the board of trustees at his HBCU alma mater, Dillard University in New Orleans. The school’s Center for Racial Justice will use the $5 million it receives to fund paid internships at civil rights and public interest organizations that traditionally could only offer students unpaid internships.

“HBCU students can’t afford to have unpaid internships. They have to spend the time working, given the socio-economic realities of the families that they come from,” Jones said. The donation will fund the internships, the infrastructure to oversee them and research on how to best pair students and organizations. “It’s a huge deal for the center. It really will give it life,” he said.

Also among the recipients of the Kirkland funds are the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, Howard University’s Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center, the HBCU scholarship fund of the African Methodist Episcopal Church Second District, and the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education, whose members served as plaintiffs in the case.

Like Greenbaum, Jones said the goal of the donations crosses over with the goals of the litigation to strengthen the HBCUs and create opportunities for students.

“That really is the hope,” he said.