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Keker & Van Nest Named 2013 Pro Bono Firm of the Year


From exonerating a man wrongfully imprisoned for attempted murder to securing a sheriff's deputy's free speech right to send letters to the editor, Keker & Van Nest LLP's pro bono work has demonstrated a commitment to freedom that has earned the firm a place among Law360's Pro Bono Firms of 2013.

“The emphasis we put on pro bono generates a lot of momentum,” Purcell told Law360. “There's always been a strong commitment here to ethics and justice for the sake of ethics and justice, and we all want to see the system functioning at its best. We leave it up to our attorneys to determine what is best.”

Ever since the San Francisco Bar Association set a 3 percent pro bono guideline for area firms about a decade ago, Keker & Van Nest has routinely exceeded that benchmark, Purcell said.

Part of the firm's success is rooted in the fact that Keker & Van Nest doesn't place a cap on individual attorneys' pro bono hours, and it doesn't differentiate between pro bono cases and paying cases, he added.

“We devote the same energy and aggressiveness to all of our cases,” Purcell said. “And when you have smart people working hard and holding themselves to high standards, success will naturally follow.”

This aggressiveness was apparent in the exoneration that Keker & Van Nest secured this February for Ronald Ross, who served nearly seven years of a 25 years-to-life sentence for an attempted shooting murder he didn't commit.

The shooting happened after an Oakland, Calif., man, Renardo Williams, confronted a neighbor about an alleged fight between his daughter and the neighbor's son. The neighbor told Williams that she would “send her man” to talk to him, and the next evening two men went to Williams' apartment and one shot him.

Ross happened to live in the same neighborhood but had never met Williams and no physical evidence linked Ross to the scene. Yet, when police showed Williams a routine photographic lineup, they inserted Ross' picture in the group. The police didn't believe Ross was involved and they had his photo because he had previous convictions for drug sales, according to Keker & Van Nest partner Jo Golub, who worked on the case.

But Williams identified Ross from the lineup, beginning a nightmarish sequence of events in which Williams testified against Ross at trial, and the neighbor's son — who was at the shooting — identified Ross as the shooter because he didn't want to implicate his father. Ross was convicted in 2006.

In 2008, the Northern California Innocence Project asked Keker & Van Nest to help free Ross, and Golub says that as she read Ross' file, she had a strong feeling that he was innocent.

Cue more than four years and more than 2,000 hours spent on the case. Keker & Van Nest hired an investigator to help the firm find witnesses and persuade them to recant their false testimony. Many did, including the neighbor's son, who felt guilty about lying at trial, Golub said.

The firm took the new evidence to the Alameda County District Attorney's Office and District Attorney Nancy O'Malley ultimately conceded that her office couldn't stand behind Ross' conviction, and it joined Keker & Van Nest's petition to set aside Ross' conviction. But until an Alameda County judge in February vacated Ross' conviction and sentence, the case was far from certain, Golub said.

“For all those years of working on the case, it was so frustrating to know that he was innocent and not have the evidence to prove because the witnesses didn't want to talk,” Golub said. “I literally stayed awake at night wondering if we would be able to get him out. Until that last moment when he did walk free, the case was just heartbreaking.”

The firm is currently representing Ross in a lawsuit seeking compensation for his wrongful imprisonment.

And in another banner win for the firm, Keker & Van Nest partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California to successfully bar the Sheriff's Department in Trinity County, Calif., from punishing and restraining the free speech rights of a sheriff's deputy who wrote letters to the local newspaper, the Trinity Journal, about issues like gun control and drug enforcement.

“As a general matter, anyone reading the letters would get that Mark Potts had a very strong libertarian viewpoint,” firm partner Ajay Krishnan told Law360. “He was opposed to the war on drugs, thought there were too many resources being spent on chasing down marijuana in particular, he's in favor of the Second Amendment and gun rights … and they were the kinds of comments that you see in national political coverage — they were of a national nature.”

But the Sheriff's Department didn't like that Potts was criticizing the laws that he was responsible for enforcing and formally reprimanded him, telling him he had violated some office policies, and that further violations could potentially result in termination, according to Krishnan, who worked on the matter.

Keker & Van Nest and the ACLU successfully secured a preliminary injunction barring the Sheriff's Department from blocking Potts' free speech rights, noting that Potts had written the letters for years without any workplace disruptions, and he wrote the letters on his own time away from his job.

A permanent injunction was later placed against the department, prohibiting it from implementing or enforcing such restrictive policies against any government employee.

Also in the past year, Keker & Van Nest teamed up with the American Bar Association's Commission on Immigration to tour a deportation detention center in Alabama to ensure that the detained immigrants, some of whom are asylum seekers, had access to counsel.

The firm found that the facility failed to adhere to ABA guidelines and that the detainees often had difficulty calling their lawyers or family members, were prevented from properly observing religious dietary needs and treated like violent criminals. Keker & Van Nest has since issued a report of its findings, which the ABA will use for advocacy purposes.

Before joining Keker & Van Nest, Krishnan was an attorney for the ACLU of Northern California, and he became acquainted with the firm in part through the extensive amount of pro bono work it does with that chapter.

“Keker has such a strong policy,” Krishnan said. “As a lawyer here, I'm still involved with the ACLU, and it's nice to be a lawyer for a cause that you believe in.”

And all of the firm's attorneys are encouraged to work on matters they're most passionate about, Purcell added.

“It's safe to say that for the entire 35-year history of this firm, pro bono has been important,” Purcell said.