Kirkland & Ellis LLP and NYLAG have built a strong pro bono partnership over the past year to provide free legal services to low-income clients seeking uncontested divorces.  Under the leadership of Kirkland’s corporate partner, Sue Zachman, twenty-five Kirkland lawyers have worked with NYLAG to serve clients in fourteen uncontested divorce matters.  The participating attorneys also include four corporate partners Zachman recruited to supervise associates.  For many of these attorneys, working with NYLAG presented their first experience doing pro bono work.

Sue Zachman saw the Kirkland and NYLAG pro bono collaboration as an opportunity for her associates to serve a growing number of low-income clients in need of free legal assistance. While uncontested divorces often do not require any court appearances, the drafting, filing in Supreme Court of the State of New York, and serving of the documents can be daunting to a client. The assistance of a lawyer in these matters is critical for ensuring that the client established sound grounds for the divorce and file all of the required documents.  Significantly, a lawyer can help a client, who may not speak English well or who is not literate, for example, maneuver through the complex court system efficiently and effectively.

Zachman also realized that her associates would benefit from the collaboration as a new and rich advocacy experience.  When she was evaluating potential pro bono projects that would be suitable for corporate attorneys, Zachman thought that uncontested divorce matters would offer a great opportunity to conduct client interviews, draft papers, and learn how to handle the service process and manage a case. While these tasks appear on their face to differ from much of the day-to-day transactional legal work handled by corporate associates, in practice they actually correspond quite well to the type of skills needed to excel as a corporate attorney – client-relationship skills, overcoming bureaucratic hurdles and managing a project to timely completion.

Zachman first became acquainted with NYLAG shortly before she started law school when she volunteered with the Disability Advocacy Project and worked on Social Security benefits appeals. Through her work at NYLAG, she became adept at obtaining crucial medical evidence and also learned about interview techniques, the boundaries of attorney-client relationships, and how to advocate for a client by presenting her case as a meaningful, coherent story. Zachman felt that her junior corporate attorneys also could obtain valuable experience and develop similar skills working on uncontested divorce cases. “It can be hard for corporate attorneys to figure out what they can do in a pro bono context,” said Zachman. “Much of the pro bono work NYLAG offers can seem so foreign. It’s been great to be involved in pro bono work and to see other attorneys getting excited about work with NYLAG’s clients. Many of our attorneys weren’t sure they could fit pro bono work into their busy schedules. Now that they have fit some of this important work into their work plans, and seen the rewards, many are making sure that as business picks back up, they can continue to be involved with the uncontested divorce project and other pro bono endeavors.”

To kick off the project, Antoinette Delruelle, a staff attorney in NYLAG’s Matrimonial and Family Law Unit, conducted a training session at Kirkland & Ellis last December.  She and other NYLAG staff attorneys also mentor Kirkland & Ellis attorneys as they work on their cases.

Alison Sclater, NYLAG’s Director of Pro Bono said, “Kirkland & Ellis is providing an incredibly valuable service to clients who want a divorce but otherwise would not have help from an attorney.  We are grateful to Sue, in particular, for building a strong project within the firm and helping us provide assistance to many more clients than we would be able to serve on our own.”