MoFo Perspectives Podcast
In the third episode of the Wetmore Fellow subseries, Los Angeles Litigation Associate and Fellow alumna Mia Akers hosts a discussion with New York Litigation partner and chair of the Morrison & Foerster Foundation Jamie Levitt, and Palo Alto IP Litigation partner and vice-chair of MoFo’s Pro Bono Services Committee Colette Mayer about how quickly the Foundation and the firm’s lawyers answered the call to serve those populations for whom the social and economic toll of the pandemic is most severe. The participants also discuss the firm and the Foundation’s immediate response to racial injustice in support of the communities in which we work and live.
Speaker: Welcome to MoFo Perspectives, a podcast by Morrison & Foerster, where we share the perspectives of our clients, colleagues, subject matter experts, and lawyers.
Ayanna Ryans-Holder: Welcome to the Diversity in Practice podcast, a part of MoFo Perspectives. My name is Ayanna Ryans-Holder, and I am the attorney diversity and inclusion specialist at MoFo, and I manage and coordinate our inclusive recruiting initiatives. In my role, I oversee the Wetmore Fellowship for Excellence, Diversity, and Inclusion. In this episode of the fellow subseries Navigating Pandemic and Protest, fellow alumnus Mia Akers, a litigation associate in our Los Angeles office; Jamie Levitt, a litigation partner in our New York office and chair of the Morrison & Foerster foundation; and Colette Mayer, an IP litigation partner in our Palo Alto office and vice chair of the firm’s pro bono services committee, will discuss how the foundation and the firm’s lawyers answer the call to serve those populations for whom the social and economic toll of the pandemic is most severe and the stance the firm took against racial discrimination and violence and the financial support the foundation provided to organizations at the forefront of those efforts.
Mia Akers: Hi everyone. My name is Mia Akers. I am a litigation associate in our Los Angeles office. And I am happy to be hosting the third episode of the five part series Navigating Pandemic and Protest. By way of background, I am a former Wetmore Fellow who joined the firm in 2018, and my practice focuses primarily on complex litigation, including class action matters, privacy-related litigation, and investigations. I’m very excited about hosting this episode of the podcast because I’ve been able to participate in various pro bono efforts related to the pandemic, including helping put together our MoFo wildfire handbook, which has helped families and other folks in California who have been impacted by the wildfires with resources on how to navigate in that situation and just from a personal perspective, it’s been really great and reassuring to see the way that MoFo has handled the recent instances of racial injustice and the firm’s response to it, and it has definitely made me feel very proud of the work that MoFo has always been doing, but is now doing more so than ever. So very excited about this episode today. So with us, we have Jamie Levitt, who is the co-chair of the Commercial Litigation and Trial group, also the former head of the New York litigation department and chair of the Morrison & Foerster Foundation. And we also have Colette Mayer, who is an IP litigation partner in our Palo Alto office, and she is vice chair of the firm’s Pro Bono Services Committee. Jamie and Colette, welcome to the podcast.
Jamie Levitt: Well, hello. Thank you. I’m excited to talk to you today.
Colette Mayer: Thanks, Mia. And I’m really happy to be here today, talking about this. It’s really important to the firm and important to me, personally.
Mia Akers: So very happy to have you all here. Before we delve a little bit more into our topics today, can you both tell us a little bit about what initially brought you to MoFo and what the focus of your practice is and how you were able to transition into your current roles, Jamie as chair of the Morrison & Foerster Foundation and Colette as vice chair of the Pro Bono Committee. Jamie, why don’t we start with you?
Jamie Levitt: Sure. This is going to sound a little bit like ancient history, but I joined Morrison & Foerster as a fourth-year associate in 1996. So a long time ago. I was really looking for a firm that had a top-notch litigation practice, which MoFo had, with an emphasis on securities litigation and trials. And that’s where my practice is today. I’m a member of the Securities Litigation Enforcement and White Collar group. And I do specialize in that, but also trials are what I love and what I have done much of. And so I chair, as you noted, our Trial Practice group. And so MoFo had that piece as well. And then also social conscience was important to me. I wanted a firm that had an excellent practice, but also excelled in its social conscience, which I know something we’ll be talking about today. And finally the ability at that time, I wasn’t even married and I didn’t yet have children, but I knew one day I’d have children.
Jamie Levitt: And I wanted a place where I thought I could best juggle work and family. And that’s been definitely a success for me here at MoFo. I think you also asked how I got to my role at the foundation. So as I said, efforts on social justice were important to me, and I joined the pro bono committee and then ended up chairing the pro bono committee for a long time, taking over from Jack London, which are big shoes to fill. But I also joined as a member of the foundation when the New York board member moved to the Tokyo office. So I became more and more involved in the foundation’s work. And when Paul Friedman was ready to step down as chair, I took over.
Colette Mayer: So I came to Morrison & Foerster a little over 15 years ago. I had started at a intellectual property boutique law firm in New York City that had about 80 lawyers total. And that was the environment I really wanted to be in right out of law school, an environment with a lot of collegiality and people who liked each other and looking at big firms, I was a little worried at the time that that was not your typical experience. And then I started meeting people from MoFo, and I found that you could have that environment in a big firm. And I started talking to more partners in the New York office and in other offices and was really drawn to the people, the clients, the type of work that we did. Interestingly now, to me, that pro bono was not something that drew me to MoFo. I think shared values drew me to MoFo.
Colette Mayer: And so from that standpoint, I think pro bono is definitely a shared value and something that demonstrates MoFo’s commitment to the community, which is something that I share. But at my prior firm, I had never been particularly involved with pro bono. When I first went to the New York office, this is now back in 2005, I immediately got involved in a case with a organization called Advocates for Children, where we were challenging a situation that was really terrible at a public school in Brooklyn, where children were just being warehoused. So any child who had a behavioral problem was just really being warehoused in an auditorium and made to do the same worksheets over and over and over. And this group of children had grown to about 500 students, and the administration of the school had justified it by saying, “Hey, these are kids with behavioral problems that are being disruptive.”
Colette Mayer: Well, some of them also had special needs, and by putting them in an auditorium and depriving them of their IEP or individualized educational plan, they were depriving them of due process under the law. So we brought a class action in the Eastern District of New York and ended up settling with the Department of Education in New York to get all these children some remedial services to deal with the fact that they’d been really deprived of an education for, in some cases, a year. So that was my first involvement with pro bono once I came to the New York office, and this was in 2005, and then I’ve been involved ever since. I think I joined the pro bono committee, I think it was 2013 or 2014. By that point, I had transferred out to the Palo Alto office. And I was on the pro bono committee for a number of years and really felt that it was an important commitment to the firm, really important to our key values that we have as robust a program as possible. And because I was so participatory on the committee, I was eventually made vice chair of the whole committee with James Schurz. And that was—I think it’s been four years at this point. So maybe 2016.
Mia Akers: Thank you, Colette. That’s an awesome story. And I echo all your sentiments about just the way MoFo handles pro bono and its ability to bring in people. And it’s been a great part of my experience as well. So I think it’s fair to say that MoFo is proud of our unwavering commitment to our colleagues, our clients, and our communities, and the MoFo Foundation and our pro bono efforts are two of the most impactful ways we, as a firm, relate to communities in which we work and live. Jamie, I know the MoFo foundation is one of the oldest law firm-affiliated charitable foundations in the United States. Can you tell us a little bit about why the foundation was created, how it was structured to be separate and apart from MoFo LLP, and how you came to be involved with it?
Jamie Levitt: The Morrison & Foerster Foundation was created in 1986, about 34 years ago. It is one of the oldest law firm-affiliated charitable foundations in the United States. It’s funded primarily from the firm’s partners. We give away a percentage of profits, as well as staff and attorneys and members and others who want to contribute through the foundation. The foundation over the years has contributed close to $65 million to just a very wide range of nonprofits and organizations that address all sorts of social inequities, especially in regions where the firm has offices. I wasn’t there at the foundation of the foundation, but I do understand that the idea was that in addition to giving back pro bono legal services, we felt that it was important to also support organizations that were supporting those who needed help in our communities.
Mia Akers: Turning to our pro bono efforts, Colette, can you tell us a little bit about your role with respect to the MoFo pro bono committee? I know you briefly mentioned about joining the committee, but if you could just shed some light on what your responsibilities entail and how you think the firm supports and encourages participation in our pro bono program.
Colette Mayer: So I view the pro bono committee to be the stewards of the pro bono program at the firm. And what that means to me is we are the people responsible for making sure that attorneys within the firm are able to do pro bono that they care about, to do pro bono in a way that is supported and treated just like any other billable matter, and really engage people as much as possible to encourage excited population of pro bono doers. So to make it a little more concrete, at some firms, there’s a couple programs. And the way that people get involved with pro bono is the pro bono counsel will say, “Hey, these are our programs. What would you like to do? You can work with this organization. You can work with this organization, or you can work with this organization.” We don’t have that approach here.
Colette Mayer: Our approach is a much more choice-based program because we think that if you engage people where they’re passionate, it’s likely to lead to more meaningful pro bono for everybody. And so our pro bono counsel, we have three of them, Dorothy Fernandez, Rachel Williams, and Jennifer Brown in New York. They’re amazing. And they meet with every incoming attorney to find out where their passions lie and how they can support those passions and try to match them with opportunities that we may have done in the past or we may not have done in the past. And from this approach to pro bono, in some ways we create inefficiencies, right? Because you have a greater number of clients. And so it’s not as easy to streamline and have the administrative oversight be minimized. But on the other hand, you get a population of attorneys within the firm who are really getting to help out where they want to help out.
Colette Mayer: And it presents itself in pretty amazing ways because sometimes we’ll create a whole new program because somebody’s very passionate about a subject, or I think sometimes we’re thought of being only a liberal law firm, but there may be somebody who’s conservative and they want to help out on a religious rights matter. And we support all of it because our view is that unless it’s clashing with a core value, which we would never do anything that was anti LGBTQ rights or anti right to choice. These are things that we’ve consistently supported over the years, but unless it’s something like that, we support almost all pro bono that our attorneys want to do. And that’s because we really believe that the more good we can be doing, the better, whether it’s the most popular cause or not.
Mia Akers: Thanks, Colette. When you put it in that way, I really appreciate MoFo taking that approach, and being a junior associate, I definitely remember sitting down with Dorothy in my first couple of weeks and getting to talk to her about the things I’m really passionate about. And for me, I really love education rights, law, and advocacy. And so I think it definitely is empowering for associates to feel like we are a part of shaping the firm’s legacy and impact in pro bono. So that’s awesome.
Colette Mayer: Yeah. And I’ll just say that we’re so lucky to have the three of them. Most firms don’t come close to the pro bono council we have in terms of just enthusiasm, depth of knowledge, and their ability to engage and really help like that. It’s amazing. We’re really, really lucky.
Mia Akers: Yeah, no, I bet. They’re awesome. So talking a little bit about your careers at MoFo, you both have spent a majority of your careers here at the firm and have witnessed our commitment to the communities we serve as we’ve been discussing. So I wonder, from each of your perspectives, have you seen the focus of pro bono matters that we engage in and the foundations work evolve over time? And if so, can you speak to how?
Jamie Levitt: I think from the foundation’s perspective, the focus has in some ways been consistent in some ways reacts to what’s going on in society. Our focus has always been on access to justice, access to services, to lifting up and providing support for those who provide voice, and access to those who are most in need. And whether that’s legal aid, educational equity, public interest fellowships, healthcare, arts. All of that I think has been consistent. What has changed is what are the issues that are most in need in society at a particular time. When AIDS was a particularly bad issue, there was some focus on healthcare. Now, obviously, we’ve—as we’ll get to in this discussion, the pandemic has really raised the issues of both access to healthcare and racial disparities, as well as, of course, the outcry for racial justice and injustice in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and Brianna Taylor and others. So we do address changes in society and things that are most at issue, but we also respond in large measure to what the nonprofit organizations are focusing on because our job, in addition to the pro bono side, where we’re really supporting with hands-on help, in the foundation, our job is to support those organizations who are helping others. And so based on what they’re doing, that helps us decide how we’re allocating our spending.
Colette Mayer: You know, I thought about this question a while, and I don’t think it has changed. I mean, from the time I got here, and if you go back to Bob Raven starting the pro bono challenge, it has been something that is core to MoFo’s ethos and just has been for decades. One of the partners that I work with the most is Jack London, who used to be head of the pro bono committee, who used to kind of be the whole pro bono committee for many years. So for decades, we’ve had an ingrained value that pro bono is important, and we treat it just like any other matter. We don’t put a cap on the number of hours that an associate can work on pro bono, and it’s really never, ever seen as a second-class citizen work. So it is something that when I got here, it was strong, and it’s still strong now, and hopefully we can keep it strong. And that’s my role in the committee.
Mia Akers: Thank you, Colette. And I definitely can attest too. I feel like on all the pro bono matters I work on, partners and associates, we treat it the same. We have the same zeal and passion for ensuring we are representing the clients as best as we can. So that’s definitely felt. So jumping more squarely into today’s topic, in the first episode of this series, David Newman, D.C. Partner and co-chair of both the firm’s Global Risk and Crisis Management practice group, discussed forming the coronavirus task force in late January after hearing increasing messages of concern from some of his former government colleagues about the potential reach and implications of COVID-19. On March 13th, the firm transitioned to a fully remote work environment as the virus spread more swiftly than anyone initially anticipated. During that time and in the month since, the effects of COVID-19 have taken a devastating social and economic toll on our most vulnerable populations. Jamie, can you speak to how and when the pandemic started to impact the work of the foundation and given the tremendous needs worldwide, how did the foundation determine the best way to allocate its resources?
Jamie Levitt: So this pandemic is obviously unprecedented or at least in our lifetimes, and wasn’t something that we had done a lot of planning for. That being said, we have always reacted in large part to what the organizations on the ground need and are doing, and then we’re there to help support them. And so that’s sort of how we helped—helped us figure out how best to apply our resources with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic. I think, as you know, through our giving through the foundation and through our fundraising campaigns, we’ve given over $200,000 to organizations that are focused on helping those organizations who are supporting people in need. So first when COVID was really hitting Asia and in our offices there turned to us to sort of how we as a foundation can support the people in Asia. We gave money to those supporting frontline workers, and that was those in China and India and elsewhere to help to deliver PPE to hospitals who were really dealing with the peak of the crisis there. When COVID came to Europe and to the United States, we then sort of turned our efforts there.
Jamie Levitt: We immediately responded by outreach to people in the community who might help us figure out how best to give our resources. We decided to focus on emergency responders first. So we gave to the New York Community Trust COVID Response Fund, which is really funding New York City nonprofits who are addressing the on-the-ground needs. And that’s because I think as people recall, New York City was sort of the first hardest hit a location. We gave to the World Central Kitchen because food insecurity became a problem, continues to be a problem. And we gave to the First Responders Children’s Foundation because the first responders and their families were the ones who were sort of hardest hit by responding to the pandemic. Then what we did was we reached out to the MoFo community with a matching grant and we were guided in large part by what those of us in the community were giving to, whether healthcare, food insecurity, school needs, educational supplies for families who are less privileged, and more. And so that’s how we determined where to give our money. I should back up and say that when we do our fundraising matches is we do call on the community to participate in giving. And then we agree to match that or more. And we determine where to give matching funds by meeting together as a board of the foundation. And again, being guided by those more knowledgeable than us, we do some due diligence and we look into organizations and that’s how we allocate.
Mia Akers: So in addition to providing continuous updates on the foundation’s efforts in your firmwide communications, you stress the importance of the MoFo community being central to the firm decisions and solicited ideas on worthy grantee organizations. Can you talk about the importance of involving the firm’s people in these decisions?
Jamie Levitt: That’s something that’s essential to me. Going back to an earlier question, I think that’s one way the foundation has somewhat changed. We really have now tried to call on the MoFo community to work with us. So it’s not so much just donating to the foundation and we give away the funds, which of course is important, but we want to engage the community in giving to help them understand. Maybe charitable giving is new to people. Maybe it’s something they’ve done forever, but let’s join as the MoFo community in making effort and making change and promoting efforts that are important to the communities in which we work. Those who are less privileged. And so we think with the fundraising matching campaigns and I—given the amount of money raise, I think it has been a success. It’s a way for us to encourage people to one, give away and be charitable, but also to help us and introduce us to organizations that we should be focusing on. So I think it’s a great way to engage the whole community in the charitable purpose of the foundation. And that way our dollars go a lot further and we can help many more people.
Mia Akers: Colette, everyone at the firm has been in some way affected by COVID-19. It has caused anxiety for some, the disruption of entire communities. Yet our lawyers firmwide have answered the call to continue to serve those who have been most severely in adversely impacted by the pandemic. Could you highlight some of our efforts and the process for determining the pro bono matters in which the firm has been engaging in since COVID-19?
Colette Mayer: So every time we get new lawyers at the firm, I always remind them that whether or not we think something is within our practice to a normal person, the fact that we’ve even gone to law school is like a superpower. Being able to read a contract or negotiate a lease. That’s something that’s just completely foreign to somebody who hasn’t gone to law school. So whether you’re an IP litigator or a bankruptcy lawyer or an M&A, you’re already light years ahead of the typical person who’s left to try to read a contract on their own. And COVID reminds me a lot of what happened when there were the separation of families crisis at the border a couple years ago. There’s been an outpouring of people who from the beginning of the crisis, just an outpouring of attorneys within the firm who say, “Look, I don’t know how I can help, but just tell me what I can do.
Colette Mayer: I want to help.” And I think the biggest challenge we had actually was there were so many people who wanted to help within the firm, that it was the pro bono committee’s job to then find the best ways to get everybody involved that we could as quick as possible, which is not always so easy if you don’t already have the matter in the firm. So some of the ways people have gotten involved or helping small businesses understand their rights under the relief acts and the various governmental procedures that have been put in place to help people financially during COVID. And then there’s been a lot of people who’ve been helping out with different detainees, whether they be in ICE, in border patrol, in prison, get either compassionate release or special medical dispensation, because they were being held in such close quarters during a time where if you had diabetes and you only had two months left in your sentence, that could be a death sentence, right? That’s not fair. That’s not the right outcome under the law. So trying to help those people get released. I think those are some of the big ones where people got involved.
Mia Akers: Yeah. Thank you, Colette. And always happy to hear that people were so eager to help out given everything going on. So switching gears a little bit, in the midst of the pandemic, the televised murder of George Floyd took place and really shed a light on issues of racial injustice that we’ve been battling with and dealing with in our country for centuries. And it sparked protests and all sorts of other movements around the country and the world. And the firm’s response to that has encompassed a myriad of external and internal efforts, including the launch of this podcast series. And I know the foundation immediately established a campaign in support of racial justice, including a special match program. So Jamie, the foundation has a history of giving to nonprofit programs and supporting equal justice works, fellows, serving people in our communities who face discrimination and injustice. Can you tell us why it was so important for the foundation to not only establish this campaign, but also to provide a matching opportunity?
Jamie Levitt: Yeah, I mean, I think there was no question. There was an outpouring of feeling that we all collectively in this country needed to do something to address. The racial injustice was always there, unfortunately, but really the killing of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, others, and then the protests that arose out of that really brought the issue to the fore. I don’t in any way say this is a new issue, sadly, but at least now we are putting much needed attention to it. And so we knew from the foundation this was an area that we wanted to focus our giving on, and we wanted to show to our community and particularly to our colleagues of color that we cared and that we wanted to do something to try to make a difference. There are so many communities facing discrimination and injustice, and we wanted to do something to give back. Throughout our history,
Jamie Levitt: the foundation really has focused on a lot of nonprofit programs, equal justice works being one of them, but others which have served people in our communities who have faced disadvantage and discrimination and injustice, and it’s something we’ve always focused on, but through this campaign, we were able to hone our focus a little more specifically on the real issues that we thought most needed to be addressed. There are so many, I think we all know that, but a way that we could really address the racism and the violence, particularly as it affects black Americans. And so we gave to the Bail Project, Equal Justice Initiative, the NAACP, LDF are all working on issues, really focused on reforming the criminal justice system and addressing issues of mass incarceration with of course the racial justice component thereof. And that’s how we started the campaign.
Jamie Levitt: But then as you noted, we really wanted the community to be part of this one. Everyone was hurting, particularly our colleagues of color. And so we did want to make this a MoFo community effort. We raised so much money. It was absolutely a wonderful outpouring, I thought. And we then agreed to match that the firm actually kicked in some additional money, so we could get up to $175,000 of giving. And then what we did was we worked with those who knew the issues best to help allocate that. And hopefully we’ll get a chance to sort of talk about that process, but your question was specifically why involved and engaged the community. And we thought because if there was ever a moment that we needed sort of community healing, this was certainly it.
Mia Akers: The racial justice match focused on four areas of importance: criminal justice and police reform, fair elections, freedom and diversity of the press, and health justice. And I know that these areas were decided in consultation with the D&I team, the Diversity Strategy Committee, which is our steering committee, and the black affinity network. Jamie, could you give us some insight into how the focus was narrowed to these four areas? And could you highlight some of the projects in these areas?
Jamie Levitt: Sure. We did reach out to the affinity networks and to the diversity committee. And again, the idea there was let’s turn to the people who are sort of much more firsthand than others of us dealing with these issues and get real insight and to make sure we’re focusing our giving where we think the impact will be most important. And we thought it was also important to learn from our colleagues of color on this issue. I think part of what came out of this summer’s bringing to the fore a lot of these issues is that those of us who are allies need to listen and we need to learn. And so not impose our views, which aren’t perfect, on solutions. And that’s why we thought it was really important to turn to the firm’s black affinity network and to the diversity committee, so that we got input from those who could help us best shape our giving and make it most effective.
Jamie Levitt: That’s how we came up with those four areas. I think it was a great structure for how we would give away our money. It also allowed us to broaden our reach. We did start with criminal justice reform. That stayed as one of the key areas. That’s obviously a very important area, but it would allow us to focus on some of the other issues as well. Elections, which we’ve continued to work on even very recently. But we learned about sort of the important of freedom and diversity of the press and, of course, health justice as well. So getting input from those who knew best was a great way for us to structure and frame our giving. Some examples of what we gave in those areas—I’ll touch on a few of them. Criminal justice reform was part of our initial seed grant giving, but then we gave to the Vera Institute of Justice, which fights systemic discrimination in the justice system.
Jamie Levitt: The gathering for justice was interesting one for us. It was founded by Harry Bellafonte, and its mission is really to end child incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline, which absolutely more disadvantages the communities of color and kind of helps to perpetuate the mass incarceration, the injustice therein. On fair elections, we turn to the Brennan Center, which is an organization we have funded in the past, but also Black Futures Lab, which was created by one of the founders of Black Lives Matter. And it was really to focus on understanding the dynamics impacting black communities and allowing them to create ways to engage and make decisions affecting their lives. For diversity in the press, we gave to the Ida B. Wells Society and the Maynard Institute. These are both very interesting organizations that are focusing on increasing the number of diverse journalists, because as we know, we can’t get a fair picture if our journalists aren’t representative of the communities that they’re reporting on. And then on health justice, we looked at Black Mamas Matter, the Black Women’s Health Initiative, and the Black AIDS Institute, all of which were focusing on how there’s a disparity in the availability of and the delivery of healthcare to communities of color. And so those were some of the areas that we focused on in our matching giving.
Mia Akers: MoFo donates tremendous resources to pro bono service, which not only provides extraordinary assistance to those in need, but also provides an avenue for our lawyers to make meaningful contributions to social justice causes that we care about. Our firm was one of the first to designate a full-time pro bono counsel position. And today our lawyers are leading the charge on some of the most historic game-changing matters. In episode one of this series, Nicole Wanzer, our director of attorney recruiting, described the necessary but challenging transition of the firm summer associate program from in person to virtual as a result of the pandemic, and in addition to focusing on training, there was also a focus on really exposing the summer associates to our pro bono efforts and getting them involved in those ways, despite the virtual setting. Colette, could you give us a little insight into that decision regarding the summer associate program and what some of that execution entailed?
Colette Mayer: Yes, I can because I was deeply involved with it. I’m also the hiring partner in Palo Alto and when I heard the decision—so first of all, Larren made the decision. And as far as I can tell, he decided it and then told us all that because he felt strongly that he wanted to have the summer associates have meaningful work opportunities, despite the fact that we were in a remote environment and allow them to get a flavor of the firm. I think his decision was really motivated by, okay, now we’re down to a, a six-week program, which is about half or a little more than half of our normal program. Nobody’s going to be in the office. We’re not going to have those day-to-day run-into-people-at-the-coffee-machine-type interactions where these summer associates get to know us as people. What’s the best way to introduce them to MoFo?
Colette Mayer: And I think it’s a real testament to our pro bono program and also to Larren that this was the decision he made. The logistical challenges in executing this, however, were great. And I’ll go back to Jennifer, Rachel, and Dorothy again. Our pro bono council were nothing short of miraculous pulling this off. So, like I said before, I think some of the things that people don’t think about with pro bono is administrative oversight. And if you now have 120 some odd summer associates coming in, and we would never just say, “Hey, here’s a project, go do it.” That’s not going to be up to MoFo caliber of work. We would have it supervised by an attorney within the firm. So that’s now some number of attorneys who are supervising the 120 summer associates on these projects. And they’re all new projects for the most part because we don’t have just 120 matters sitting around not being done.
Colette Mayer: So lining up the work stream for that and lining up the supervision and working with the organizations that we partner with for pro bono projects in general, was just logistically really, really complex. And Jennifer, Dorothy, and Rachel, and James and I as well, we had many conversations about what areas we should focus on, what types of projects we should be looking for, and which pro bono partners that we work with frequently, we could really trust to get us a consistent, reliable flow of work so that we could work with the summers and make sure that the work was there. So it was a lot of effort going into it and across all of our offices and even Tokyo. So the Tokyo summer associates also worked on pro bono. It was amazing that it got pulled off. And I think by the time the summers left, they had all engaged in the pro bono projects, worked on them. And for, I’d say, 90% of them completed the projects, which was another goal because you don’t want to have a bunch of work left over when they leave for the summer. So it was really great that it was able to happen.
Mia Akers: That’s awesome. Yeah. And I definitely do not envy you all and having to administer in facilitate that, but interacting with the summer associate through the virtual zooms and other events we had, the summers that I spoke to had a great time working on those projects. So that’s great.
Colette Mayer: Yeah. It was just one anecdote. I mean, it was something that I think that we under—probably underappreciated going into the summer how much of an impact it would make on the summer associates. I had one summer associate tell me that by the time the summer started, he’s just emotionally drained by COVID and everything else that was going on. And he was thinking, “Gosh, how am I going to sit here and remotely work for six weeks and be engaged.” And when he first was introduced to the pro bono project he’d be working on and the people he was working with, he said that he just felt this sense of reinvigoration and just really, really appreciated the opportunity. And when he told me this during his exit interview, I was thinking, “Oh, we’d been so used to working remotely for so long that you get kind of used to feeling that daily, whatever.” But for these students who are this for many of them, their first job, it was a great introduction to the firm.
Mia Akers: Absolutely. That’s great to hear. And I think for attorneys at the firm, too, when I have that same feeling. When I’m working on a pro bono project that you’re really passionate about, or that you can just connect to, it does something for your soul, for your heart, for your energy. So for them, I’m really happy that they have that experience despite it being a very different summer. So also as part of the firm’s response to the deaths of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, Tony McDade, Rashard Brooks, way too many others to count, there has been an increased focus on advancing racial justice through criminal justice efforts and focusing on our electoral process and ensuring that it’s fair and equitable. Colette, could you also talk about the firm’s pro bono efforts in these areas?
Colette Mayer: Yes. So this was one area where we decided it would be best to try to concentrate our efforts. And in some ways, a bit of a departure from how we normally do pro bono, this pro bono by choice, but in other ways, not really. So we had an outpouring of MoFo attorney interest in doing pro bono to do something. It’s always, “I want to help. How can I help,” but there’s no specific project in mind. And because of that, we identified areas where we could make a significant impact by just having the number of people that we have who were interested in doing the pro bono work. So one area is election protection, and right now there’s a huge high-profile litigation in Georgia, challenging the Georgia voting system down there. And that’s been going on for quite some time, but we decided that we were going to really focus efforts on helping with the upcoming election, because everybody knows how important it is this year, whatever side you’re on, but also historically, the low black turnout has made a difference in election and voter suppression, has been something that there’s been historical problems within our country, basically since African Americans got the right to vote.
Colette Mayer: So it was a situation where we thought we could make a huge difference. And we have focused on the Healthy Elections Project, which is a nonpartisan educational project run out of Stanford Law School and MIT. And the point of that project is to provide nonpartisan but accurate information about the election access to voting, different challenges that have been made to whether or not there’s going to be a lot of voter fraud, that type of stuff, because really information and accurate information is helpful, no matter which side you’re on. And that’s our hope at least. So a lot of our summer associates helped do research in key states. And we put out white papers that have been widely cited by newspapers now detailing all of the different challenges and what procedures different states are putting in because a lot of states it’s different this year than ever before.
Colette Mayer: We also have worked with, separately, so this is not voting rights, Three Strikes Law in Mississippi. The Southern Poverty Law Center has a program down there helping people who were convicted on three strikes offenses who are disproportionately black, and they have no possibility of parole. So we’ve helped with their petitions to try to say, “Hey, look, this is ridiculous. And they should be granted a parole hearing.” In a lot of cases that can happen, but not if somebody doesn’t get involved. So those are two specific projects within the areas, but on a larger kind of bird’s eye view of this, we’ve really focused a lot on election protection and making people feel like they know what’s going on with their right to vote and how to vote. And then also with racial injustice in terms of criminal convictions.
Mia Akers: Thank you, Colette. Yeah, that’s a great overview. And I just love that the firm recognizes and pro bono committee, just the intersections of these issues and how race, class, all those things are—they’re coming together right now in this really critical moment. And definitely as a black associate, it’s just, again, really great to see the firm engage in these efforts when it comes to voting and criminal justice. Jamie, currently you, along with MoFo partner Josh Hill, are leading the MoFo team serving as co-counsel with the NAACP legal defense fund in a groundbreaking federal lawsuit against the Binghamton City School District for conducting intrusive searches of four 12-year-old black and Latina girls after they appeared hyper and giddy during lunch. The case examines the disparate treatment and discipline rates of black girls in United States schools. While I know you cannot comment on the case itself, can you tell us why it was so important for the firm to partner with the NAACP LDF in bringing this suit?
Jamie Levitt: Sure. I’d be happy to talk about that. So nice for us, LDF, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, actually came to us through a former MoFo New York litigation associate named Jin Hee Lee, who’s now working there, and this was a case they felt important to bring, and they wanted a partner that they knew had a deep and long commitment to pro bono, as well as the issues of racial injustice. And we’re strong litigators and could provide the resources. They are stretched thin. And so we were really happy and honored to be able to partner with them to move this case forward. They’re the experts, as you probably saw, there was a recent article in the New York Times addressing this case kind of as the key, but then this issue going on in other schools as well, which is enormous disparity in school discipline for black girls.
Jamie Levitt: And it’s a thing we don’t talk that much about, but it’s of enormous importance and very, very emotionally destabilizing for these girls to be singled out for discipline in such a disparate way as they are. And what’s great is LDF is calling attention to this issue through the media, but also through our lawsuit in an attempt to sort of begin to fix this problem. The story is horrible and sad, and we are aggressively moving forward to get justice for these girls in particular in their families, but also for the broader community. And as I said, we’re really lucky, Josh and I and the team, to be able to partner with LDF on that case.
Mia Akers: Jamie and Colette. This question is for both of you. So you both wear multiple hats at MoFo, but you both all also have another equally important role as parents and the pandemic has resulted in shelter in place orders, working from home full time, remote schooling on many levels and other disruptive and anxiety inducing challenges. And this is on top of the issues of racial injustice and the protests as a result of that. I know the firm has hosted several sessions, both internally and externally, on how to talk to kids about race in an effort to support working parents through this trying time. Can you both talk a little bit about how you assist your children in learning to navigate a world where the issues of public health and racial justice are simultaneously at the forefront of our society now? And Colette, can we start with you?
Colette Mayer: Sure. So we have three kids. The oldest is in high school, she’s a sophomore, the middle is in eighth grade and then the youngest is in seventh grade and he has special needs. So across the three of them, these topics come up completely differently and then take it all of that. And we live in Silicon Valley, which is really discouragingly undiverse in some ways, both socioeconomically and the lack of black or Latinx people in general in Silicon Valley. So I think that for we are in a bubble within a bubble, but what has been encouraging through this whole thing is the way that the three kids have rolled with it. You know, I keep thinking back and I keep saying to my wife, if this were me, I can’t think of how weird it would be to be at home. Right. I can’t think of how it would’ve been to have the internet either, but putting that aside, I can’t think of how weird it would be to be at home and be just bombarded with information through Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram, we’ve got just nonstop information coming into all three of the kids, depending on what they focus on.
Colette Mayer: I mean, YouTube is, is a huge one, but it’s really, really encouraging to see how they all roll with it. And we do our best at home to try to keep everybody focused on how lucky we are. Right. I tell the kids all the time, like, look, at least we can work from home. I mean, think about this person who can’t work from home, can’t pay their water bill. And now the water bills coming due and the kids all seem to get it. I think the one in high school is the most socially aware and she keeps telling me when our generation can vote, everything’s going to be fixed because we know all of this is wrong. And I hope that’s true. So on the one hand it’s been, it’s been really hard to see them not being able to go to school and have to deal with all these really adult concepts at a really young age. But on the other hand, it’s really encouraging too, because they are our future and they seem to have a really good outlook about it and good heads on their shoulders. So I definitely think focusing on gratitude and where we can help make change has been really good during this time.
Jamie Levitt: And thinking about that question. I mean, I think I’m could say that my kids have been pretty well educated if not indoctrinated in the need for those of us in positions of privilege to use our voices, our position, our access, to help those who are less privileged. And I don’t think it’s ever been brought to the forum more than it has today. And so whether that’s disproportionately affected by COVID or by racial discrimination or by both, we need to find ways to give back. So my kids were both in college at the time that COVID first hit and in March we brought them home. And so, you know, immediately the question was, okay, reorganizing your life now to remote schooling while we’re now remote working and sort of figuring that out. But that was the immediate question. And then it became, all right, so we’re frankly, the lucky ones in this situation, we can make this work.
Jamie Levitt: So how can we look for ways to help other people who maybe aren’t as lucky and whether that’s through being a resource for people or charitable donations to help organizations that are, is something we, as a family talked a lot about when it comes to issues of racial discrimination on top of that, that is, as I said, something that we as a family have always talked about and cared about, and my husband and I sit on a lot of nonprofit boards, as well as you know, I do a lot of pro bono work. It’s something that we talk about openly all the time with our kids and have since they were little. And so this was just, I think more of that discussion, my kids also went to a Quaker school growing up and service was an integral part of their K through 12 academics.
Jamie Levitt: So service is built into the curriculum. My daughter ended up in fact chairing the service committee at school. And so the idea of giving back and, doing what you can to make the world a better place is something that they’ve always grown up in. So this summer we participated in marches. We tried to work for organizations that were giving back. For example, there’s a group called Matriculate, which college students can help high school students from low income families and low income communities to go through the college application process. So to be there for other kids, the way we were able to be there for ours. And I think these are issues that are great for families to talk about with their children, that we sit in the position where we can help and should help those that are less privileged and those that are suffering.
Mia Akers: Thank you both for joining me today on the podcast, please be on the lookout for episode four in this series where we’ll be discussing the firm’s response to racial injustice and the 21-day challenge.
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