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How Kirkland & Ellis Contributed 5,000-Plus Hours to an Investigation Into Discriminatory Policing in Minneapolis

Kirkland donated about 5,300 hours to an investigation by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights following the murder of George Floyd. The state’s civil rights enforcer announced Wednesday it found Minneapolis and its police department engaged in “a pattern or practice of race discrimination” in violation of the state’s Human Rights Act.

I spent the better part of my morning yesterday making my way through the 72-page report released by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights into its investigation of the city of Minneapolis and its police department after the murder of George Floyd.

The report, which digs into a decade’s worth of data for Minneapolis Police Department traffic stops and use of force incidents, concludes that the city and the MPD engaged in “a pattern or practice” of race discrimination against Black individuals. Among the findings, the state’s civil rights enforcer found MPD officers were more likely to use excessive force and chemical irritants including pepper spray against Blacks than whites under similar circumstances. Although the city’s population is 19% Black, 55% of all citations issued at traffic stops in Minneapolis are issued to Black individuals. The MDHR, the state’s civil rights enforcer, announced that it intends to work with the city to develop a consent decree to address specific changes outlined in the report.

What the report doesn’t make explicit is the extensive pro bono effort that a team at Kirkland & Ellis, led by partners Lisa Madigan, Eric White and Robert Pommer, put into the fact-finding and legal analysis regarding MPD’s training, use of force and accountability practices. The firm was chosen for the pro bono assignment in July 2020 in what a spokesperson for the MDHR described yesterday as “a competitive bidding process.” No doubt, Madigan’s experience in her prior role as the attorney general of Illinois hammering out a consent decree to reform the Chicago Police Department played a role in the firm landing the assignment. 

Since taking on the assignment, more than 70 lawyers and staff spread across seven Kirkland offices — Chicago, Washington, D.C., New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston and Salt Lake City — have dedicated about 5,300 hours to the investigation. The effort involved more than 70,000 documents, more than 3,500 videos and audiotapes and interviews with more than 75 individuals, including MPD employees, police conduct oversight and review employees, prosecutors, public defenders, and other first responders.

I caught up with Madigan and White yesterday in the wake of the report’s release. Both say that after MDHR chose Kirkland for the pro bono assignment in July 2020, the response internally was impressive and, in many ways, difficult to describe.

“Following the murder of George Floyd people across the country demanded an end to discriminatory race-based policing,” Madigan says. “And assisting MDHR’s investigation into Minneapolis Police Department was one way that Kirkland was able to respond in a significant and meaningful way.” 

White, who served as Madigan’s point person in building out teams to handle different tasks, said that staffing the investigation, despite how busy the firm was at the time, was not difficult. “When calling associates and partners to ask if they’d be willing to work on this matter, there were so many people who literally burst out in tears,” White says. “The issue that we were working on meant so much to them, and they saw it as an honor and privilege to be asked to work on the matter.”

“So many attorneys worked on this massive investigation at truly one of the busiest times for the firm and one of the most challenging times for many of our attorneys — with the pandemic, isolation and just the societal unrest,” White says. “I personally found — and I know so many others did as well — that working on this investigation energized me. What I was able to pour out so much into the investigation, it poured into me.”

I honestly found White’s answer so poignant and compelling that I felt awkward asking my next question. In the wake of the Rodney King beating in the 1990s, “practice or pattern” investigations into discriminatory policing traditionally have been the province of the U.S. Department of Justice, and one is underway currently in Minneapolis. In pulling together firm resources quickly and extensively, Kirkland certainly demonstrated it’s up to the task to handle such a monumental pro bono assignment in a parallel probe by local authorities. But should it be left to large law firms to provide the investigative heft needed to do fact-finding needed in these sorts of investigations?

Madigan noted that all of Kirkland’s work here was done at the direction of MDHR. She went on to say that the last few years have demonstrated that policy reform is necessary across the country and law firms could have a role to play in that reform.

“You can have state and local governments significantly involved in those efforts. Sometimes the federal government doesn’t have the resources or won’t have the will,” Madigan says. “And in those circumstances, I would encourage other firms: They should step up and should provide pro bono services to assist when there are investigations that have to be done and change that needs to be made.”