We talked to Kelly Huggins, pro bono counsel in Chicago and coordinator of the Capital Litigation Project and the Political Asylum and Immigrants’ Rights Project. She shared her thoughts on how the Projects have evolved over the years and the myriad benefits of pro bono work for our lawyers.
What are your main responsibilities as coordinator of the Capital Litigation and Political Asylum and Immigrants’ Rights Projects?
I serve as a liaison to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), the organization that we partner with on our Capital Litigation Project cases in Alabama. The asylum cases come from several referral sources, so I work with organizations across the country as part of that Project. I’ve been working on these cases for ten years, so people come to me with all types of substantive and procedural questions. In addition, Emily Wexler (staff attorney and leader of the Veterans Benefits Project) and I host pro bono recruitment sessions at Chicago’s new associate orientation and meet with laterals individually when they join the firm. We get in early!
What led you to focus your practice on pro bono work?
I joined the firm as a healthcare associate in 2001 and began doing pro bono work in addition to my billable practice. Eventually, I decided that my healthcare practice, which involved a lot of travel, was not conducive to my family life. At the time, a partner and I were working together on a death penalty case, and he asked me if I would like to take over coordination of the Capital Litigation Project. It was a great transition and perfect timing for me. It has been very rewarding to serve in a role where I can help our lawyers get the best answer for the client and provide reassurance that they’re not alone in their pro bono cases.
How does the Capital Litigation Project caseload today compare with 2005, when the Project was founded?
We took twelve death penalty cases in Alabama in 2005. We have taken ten more cases since then, including one new case in 2015. We currently represent eighteen clients in Alabama post-conviction proceedings. Alabama continues to have a high death sentencing rate, and EJI has recently reported that they are having difficulty recruiting pro bono counsel for cases that are coming through the system now. But the national trend is that the death penalty is on the decline in other states. Hopefully, there won’t be as much of a need in the future.
What skills do associates gain from working on pro bono cases?
Associates get great experience with fact development on death penalty cases, because they have to thoroughly investigate the facts before they can draft a post-conviction petition. The associates interview witnesses and work directly with experts, which they may not be able to do on a billable matter. They also help strategize claims, and they are typically responsible for the first drafts of pleadings.
Political asylum cases offer opportunities for transactional attorneys to work directly with clients and learn a new area of law. Immigration court cases are also great for young litigators, because they take place in a trial-like setting, but the rules of evidence don’t apply. It’s a good way to get experience in front of a judge and opposing counsel in a more relaxed environment.
We also have a new pro bono initiative in Chicago, the Municipal Court Trial Program, which was developed last year by the litigation group leaders to help associates gain more in-court experience. We send volunteers to the Cook County Municipal Court to assist clients who need representation in small claims cases. The associates love it, because it allows them to get in-court experience without a lengthy time commitment.
Can you think of a recent case that had a particularly rewarding outcome?
We have seen a surge of children who are escaping gang violence in Central America coming through our Political Asylum Program. In one case, two brothers were detained at the United States border, and we ultimately helped them apply for asylum. When I was helping them prepare for their asylum interviews, the older brother broke down and started crying because he was so afraid of returning to his home country. It was horrible! On Christmas Eve 2014, they were granted asylum. Since then, the older brother has enrolled in school and decided that he wants to be a doctor. Their lives are already so different from a year ago. It is wonderful to see that progress and be part of their lives as they move on.