Morrison & Foerster is a pro bono leader. It galvanized the 1991 gathering of law firm leaders that led to the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge®, the bedrock of pro bono today. One of the first law firms to create a full-time pro bono counsel position, MoFo dedicates extraordinary resources to help attorneys get and stay involved in pro bono work.
This proud pro bono tradition is lived out every day by lawyers in Morrison & Foerster's offices worldwide. No matter is too great or too small. Attorneys take on class action cases to benefit thousands of people and represent individuals who otherwise would be shut out from access to the justice system. We staff legal service clinics and counsel hundreds of nonprofit organizations on legal needs from corporate formation to patent claims.
The lawyers of MoFo bring their energy to all kinds of pro bono work. As a firm, we have developed special expertise in civil rights and civil liberties litigation, improving public education for poor children, advocating for veterans, promoting international human rights, winning asylum for the persecuted, and safeguarding the environment. Our business attorneys are leading innovators and advisers in the dynamic field of social entrepreneurship, which is transforming anti-poverty initiatives worldwide.
We invite you to learn about a few of our pro bono clients below. You can visit the pro bono homepage
to learn more about Pro Bono at MoFo.
Showdown for the Defense of Marriage Act
Soon after Karen Golinski got married in 2008, she tried to enroll her spouse in her employee health insurance plan. Her employer, the federal courts of the Ninth Circuit, turned her down because her spouse is another woman. We challenged this unequal treatment together with Lambda Legal, and finally, in early 2012, she won. A federal district court ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a law that prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages, is unconstitutional, and that Karen Golinski deserved the same employee benefits that her married heterosexual co-workers enjoy.
Our lawyers have stayed with the case through dramatic ups and downs. We won an order in Ms. Golinski's favor through an administrative proceeding before the Chief Judge of the Ninth Circuit – only to see it ignored by federal officials who claimed DOMA tied their hands. The standoff between the judicial and executive branches continued, so we took the case to court. The judge dismissed the case to allow a direct challenge to DOMA, which we filed, and then, in February 2011, the Obama administration announced that it would no longer defend DOMA. However, Republican congressional leaders intervened in the case to defend DOMA and the denial of insurance benefits. Victory is sweet – but not yet final; a federal appeals court now has the case.
"I cannot describe the joy and relief I feel knowing that Amy will be added to my plan. My cup runneth over! From the bottom of my heart, THANK YOU TO ALL OF YOU for your help in securing this treasure — health benefits under my family plan for Amy."
-Karen Golinski, Pro Bono Client
Seeking Timely Care and Benefits for Veterans
Since 2007, Morrison & Foerster has been pressing the U.S. government to provide necessary care and disability compensation to veterans who suffer from PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and other debilitating psychological problems as a result of their service. That year, we filed a lawsuit on behalf of two nonprofit veterans' groups, seeking to hold the government accountable for denying emergency care and delaying treatment for these veterans—failings that have contributed to a tragically high number of suicides in this group. The lawsuit also highlights a Department of Veterans Affairs ("DVA") so overwhelmed that veterans and their survivors can wait years for decisions on whether they will receive benefits for their suffering.
The federal district court denied relief after trial, but that ruling was reversed by a panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that the government has violated veterans’ constitutional rights by delaying care and benefits. Unfortunately, an en banc panel of that same court overturned the panel decision, ruling that courts have no jurisdiction over constitutional claims brought by veterans, and that veterans must look to the DVA or Congress for relief. While the ultimate legal outcome of the suit remains uncertain, this case already has promoted awareness of the tragic plight of many returning veterans and led to increased hiring of mental health care workers and other vital reforms.
Winning Freedom for the Innocent
Few legal dramas are more inspiring than a lawyer's crusade to free a wrongfully convicted person from prison. The stakes in these cases are high, not only for the individuals behind bars, but also for the integrity of the justice system that has put them there. Morrison & Foerster lawyers embrace the challenge of these critical cases, even while knowing that the innocent win their freedom far more often in fiction than in fact.
The dream of release came true for our client Francisco Carrillo on March 15, 2011, when he walked out of prison a free man 20 years after his arrest for murder and attempted murder. The hearing on his petition for habeas corpus lasted just six days, but it was the culmination of nearly five years and thousands of hours of painstaking work. In the end, it was a simple case of mistaken identity by a teenaged eyewitness, compounded by the witness's friends who followed his lead in identifying our client as the murderer. The witnesses recanted their prior testimony, and an expert's testimony that there was insufficient light to make positive identifications was underscored by a nighttime visit with the judge to the scene of the crime. In addition to his attorneys from our San Francisco office, Mr. Carrillo's legal team included the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University and a private attorney, all working pro bono.
"My heart is free—my gratitude is boundless. Thank you to the great lawyers of Morrison & Foerster. As my life on the outside unfolds, I will always hold you as a model of generosity and dedication to others."
-Francisco Carrillo, Client
Standing Up for Equal Educational Opportunity
As states across the country are forced to slash their budgets, a case from California highlights how such cuts can especially hurt the disadvantaged. In early 2010, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) was poised to lay off thousands of teachers in response to state budget cuts in its 650,000-student public school district, on top of thousands of layoffs the year before. The city’s poorer schools were hardest hit by these layoffs, which decimated their teaching corps and undermined their ability to serve some of the most at-risk students in the district.
Morrison & Foerster joined attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and the Public Counsel Law Center to file Reed v. State of California
on behalf of students in three LAUSD inner-city middle schools. Our goal was to prevent teacher layoffs at these schools, which had lost 40% of their teachers to layoffs in 2009 and faced similar cuts again. We quickly won a preliminary injunction against the anticipated new layoffs, with the trial court finding that "high teacher turnover devastates educational opportunity" and that the cuts violated plaintiffs’ constitutional right to equal educational opportunity. In early 2011, after a four-day evidentiary hearing, the trial court approved a settlement agreement between our clients and the school district to protect students at these and 42 additional at-risk schools from bearing the brunt of future layoffs while also adopting new retention incentives for both teachers and administrators. An appeal by the local teachers union is under consideration, but meanwhile, the settlement agreement is protecting educational opportunity for thousands of students.
"What impressed me most about the team Morrison & Foerster committed to work on this case [Reed v. State of California] was their commitment to the students and the communities served by the schools, and the zeal and smarts with which they went about helping to design and implement ambitious reforms to stem historic patterns of school-wide underperformance. The results were heartening."
-Mark Rosenbaum, Chief Counsel, ACLU of Southern California
Giving a Boost to Flexible Purpose Corporations
Several years' work led in part by Business Department Co-Chair Susan Mac Cormac paid off when the California governor signed a law authorizing the Flexible Purpose Corporation as a new corporate form in California. Suz was a leader of the California Working Group that drafted this law, which allows for-profit companies to establish social and/or environmental purposes in their charter documents, and to place those purposes on par with economic gain in the companies' operations. This new corporate form is expected to give substance to the vision of a growing number of entrepreneurs and investors who want to combine traditional business goals with social betterment missions.
Creating a Safe Corridor for Wild Animals
Morrison & Foerster attorneys are helping The Nature Conservancy and its local partner, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, to create an "Ecological Corridor" in Kenya. The corridor allows wild animals to pass safely between two of their seasonal sources of food: the World Heritage Site adjacent to Mt. Kenya and the Northern Kenyan Grasslands. Creating the corridor requires purchasing 60,000 acres of land, while giving permission to current property owners to retain small private in-holdings as their homes. The new corridor promotes sustainable biodiversity. It reduces conflict between animals and local residents by diminishing destructive foraging on local farmers’ fields and crops, while also creating ecotourism opportunities.
For more information, please contact Kathi Pugh
, Jennifer Brown
or Rachel Williams