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Pro Bono 2012: Dewey's Former Pro Bono Clients Feel Strain of Firm's Closure

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Shoshanah Brown, executive director of the Harlem Children's Zone Asthma Initiative, knows surprises are a natural occurrence in the nonprofit realm. But earlier this year, even she was shocked when Dewey & LeBoeuf, the initiative's primary pro bono counsel for nearly a decade, filed for bankruptcy in May.

"We never thought Dewey would be the thing to cave," says Brown, whose organization—which aims to ease the potentially debilitating effects asthma can have on school-aged children—was one of several groups that lost a major resource when the firm closed its doors. "We thought it would be everybody else before Dewey."

Although other law firm collapses—including those of Coudert Brothers, Heller Ehrman, Howrey, and Thelen——have left organizations scrambling to reassign pro bono work, Dewey's disappearance has struck a particularly significant blow given the extent of its contributions. In 2011 The American Lawyer ranked the firm fifth among the nation's largest law firms for its commitment to pro bono.

That's not to say all pro bono work died when Dewey did. In fact, many Dewey lawyers took ongoing matters with them to their new professional homes, and several still sit on the boards of the organizations the firm once served. The Asthma Initiative, for example, continues to count former Dewey associate Emily Saffitz, who is now at Thompson & Knight, as a member of its advisory board.

While the nonprofit is working to line up another large law firm to fill the void Dewey left, it may be difficult to replace the firm's institutional knowledge. Over the years, Dewey took on more than 300 cases on behalf of the Asthma Initiative, learning the intricacies of New York's housing court and never shying from a fight with the New York City Housing Authority, the public agency that controls many of the apartments where asthma diagnoses are most prevalent.


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