Dykema Gossett's Pro Bono Full-Timer

March 20, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Dykema Gossett PLLC has become the first law firm in Michigan to hire an attorney to manage its pro bono legal services program on a full-time basis.

The firm’s pro bono program has expanded significantly over the past several years as the firm has grown nationally, which has increased the complexity of case administration, said Chairman and CEO Rex Schlaybaugh Jr. The firm estimates that last year its lawyers and legal assistants performed nearly 11,300 hours of pro bono work and collectively contributed some $112,000 to legal service agencies. In fact, American Lawyer magazine ranked Dykema Gossett as one of the top 100 law firms for its pro bono efforts in 2005. At last count, the firm employed nearly 400 attorneys.

Attorney Heidi Naasko now oversees daily administration of the program on a firm-wide basis and coordinates the pro bono caseload among Dykema Gossett’s 10 offices nationwide. Naasko, who was an associate in Dykema Gossett’s Bankruptcy Group from 1998 to 2002, said that up until the early 1990s, the firm’s lawyers took on pro bono cases on their own initiative. Then Dykema Gossett instituted an organized pro bono program and adopted a formal policy requiring each attorney to donate a minimum of 30 hours of pro bono service, or contribute $300 either to a legal aid agency or to the Access to Justice Fund in Michigan, or provide some combination of both service and financial donation.

Prior to January, one partner in the firm was in charge of coordinating the firm-wide pro bono effort, yet was still responsible for maintaining a private practice. But as the firm continued to expand in markets, especially in the Chicago market, Naasko said, the pro bono program was becoming such a large, complex and involved process that the firm decided it would be best to hire someone full time to dedicate their entire day to it.

Naasko doesn’t have a responsibility to bill private clients; she has no other charge except for the pro bono program. Naasko said she did some soul searching a few years ago and decided to make the leap to direct service to the community. Subsequently, she hired on as a staff attorney with the Women’s Survival Center of Oakland County, and worked in family law legal aid. So she feels the new position as pro bono coordinator is a good fit.

“Primarily, I’m doing the administration and trying to reach out to community legal agencies, recruit attorneys, and enrich our program to make sure we’re serving all aspects of the community in all of our markets, because we feel this is really an important piece of what we do as a firm.”

Like other attorneys in the firm, Naasko also takes on some pro bono cases. With all Dykema Gossett offices factored in, attorneys averaged 29.3 hours of pro bono work last year, but the averages vary with each office, she said. The Ann Arbor office, for instance, averaged 49.6 hours per attorney, the Grand Rapids office 34.2 hours per attorney, and the Detroit office 42.5 hours per attorney.

The firm generally takes cases from the legal aid agencies. Pro bono work runs the gamut of poverty law cases, including landlord-tenant disputes, domestic violence, consumer fraud, wills, child custody disputes, special education, grandparent rights, prisoner rights and more. Naasko said Dykema Gossett also represents numerous nonprofit organizations that assist the underserved. Naasko said the firm will continue to do pro bono work for individuals even as it increases its focus on the larger, public-policy changing cases.

“The cases that we’re really focusing on and trying to bring into our pro bono program are the landmark policy-changing cases that will affect the community and the state at large,” Naasko said. “We love serving the individuals, but we think that we can do amazing things wielding the power of our attorney resources to really effect positive changes on a statewide basis for our communities. We’re just enriching our pro bono program to look at more ‘impacting’ work. That’s the goal for this year.”

For example, last year the firm’s attorneys filed suit against a national fraternal organization that had threatened to revoke the charter of a local chapter because it admitted women. The suit resulted in a settlement that required the organization to change its national charter to accept women.    

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