As in many other industries, 2020 proved to be both challenging and eye-opening for the legal profession. With COVID-19, we were faced with new laws and novel issues, and we learned the virtual parameters within which we can provide effective representation. This could not be truer than in my practice of Employment Law at Ice Miller. At the same time that our practice faced one of its busiest times, 2020 was also the year where the moral imperative of pro bono work was more apparent than ever.
COVID-19 touched on virtually every area of employment law. To name a few: discrimination concerns, leave entitlement, workplace safety, protected concerted activity, unemployment, reductions in force, and workers' compensation. It also brought with it a slew of new laws, regulations, executive orders, and agency guidance on the national, state, and local levels. At times, regulations and/or guidance conflicted, did not provide answers for our clients, or raised even more questions or obligations for employers than before. More than once, even after spirited academic debate among the talented and smart folks in our Employment Law group about a new issue, we had to tell our clients what no lawyers want to tell their clients—there is no clear answer to this question (at least not yet).
Amidst the madness, we found it more important than ever to remember our role as counselors and think about issues outside of the law, both practical and human. Legal compliance was only one part of the picture—also at play was employee morale, employees feeling safe enough to come into work in the first place, public perception, each employer's economic circumstances, and quite simply, doing the right thing. Employers faced hard decisions. Maybe a company wanted to afford its employees more leave than was required, but it could not keep its doors open if it did.
Above all, the hardest part of my job during this time was helping clients with one of the most difficult decisions they had to make (or were forced to make)—reductions in force (RIF). I assisted with more RIFs in just a few months than I had done in my entire legal career. The process is always very formalistic at first—determining the legal requirements for group reductions in force, making sure separation agreements contained required language, etc. But there always came the moment where it hit us. Wow, X number of people are losing their jobs tomorrow. Losing their livelihoods. It was never more real than when I was physically typing in the names of employees who would be losing their jobs into separation agreements, over and over. On the flip side, there were feelings of great accomplishment when we helped boost our clients up. We shared news about economic relief or tax credits that helped keep workers employed, and we worked with employers to implement creative solutions to make their workplaces as safe as possible for those who had to stay at work and for others when they returned.
Despite its challenges, I find my employment work to be incredibly fulfilling (in 2020 and prior years). I have no doubt that the work we do as employment counsel creates better workplaces for employees. Yet, at the same time, while we were helping clients work through these issues, the increased need for pro bono services could not be ignored. Every year, the need for pro bono work is vital, but especially in a year with a global pandemic, economic challenges, and where racial injustice has been brought to the forefront.
In choosing to be an associate at a large law firm, it is one thing to say that you will use your position to help the community and will do pro bono work (something I always told myself). It is quite another thing to do it in reality, particularly when billable hour requirements are looming and there are seemingly endless other expectations you need to meet before you hit partner. I feel lucky that this year I had opportunities to do more pro bono work than in prior years, and now more than ever, it felt imperative to respond to those opportunities in the affirmative.
Ice Miller values pro bono work, and that goes a long way in feeling comfortable accepting pro bono work that will take attention away from client billable work. In January 2020, Ice Miller hired Diane Menashe as a partner in its Litigation Practice and as the Director of Litigation Training and Pro Bono Activities. From the get-go, Diane has been aggressively advocating within the Firm the importance of pro bono work. After the COVID-19 pandemic hit, at Diane's request, our managing partner Steve Humke readily endorsed an increase in the amount of pro bono hours that could count toward our billable hour requirement.
Needless to say, in 2020, I found my inbox full of pro bono opportunities, to the end (including a memorable December 2020 email from Diane to all associates and of counsel—"You could even say 'Diane I would like 5 hours of PB work' and we'll make it happen."). One such opportunity was participating in one of the Second Chance Driving Workshops, for which Ice Miller is collaborating with Eli Lilly, the Indianapolis Legal Aid Society, and the Marion County Prosecutor's Office, assisting indigent individuals in the reinstatement of their driving licenses. (This is just one part of the crucial work being facilitated by the Firm's Racial Justice Task Force – see www.icemiller.com/racial-justice-task-force/). In participating in the workshop, I did one simple task—helped people get their driver's licenses back—but it felt very important. A means of transportation could literally mean life-changing progress for these individuals. The other opportunity I accepted was providing legal counsel to an indigent prisoner who had filed a pro se civil rights lawsuit. Without providing details, suffice it to say that I've never had a more grateful client or felt more like a favorable result could really change a person's life.
It took me more than four years to delve into pro bono work like I have this year (four years too long), and I do not plan on going back now. I suspect in both the employment and pro bono realms, 2021 will look a lot like 2020 (at least at the macro level). Bring it on.
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