At the beginning of 2014, Daniel Purcell hadn't yet heard of the unaccompanied minors crisis. But by the end of this year, he and his fellow attorneys at Keker & Van Nest LLP had represented multiple refugees and helped set up a database to help other attorneys do the same.
Purcell attended a roundtable hosted by California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris earlier this year and was impressed with the turnout, but it was attended mostly by Southern California firms and in-house legal departments.
Harris explained that thousands of children were fleeing South and Central American countries and making their way north, often without any parental supervision. Upon entering the U.S., many of these children ended up in a complicated asylum and immigration system with no one to guide them through it. Purcell pledged to bring the message north. His fellow partners at Keker agreed to get involved and quickly learned that this wasn't a typical pro bono situation. There was much work to be done before clients would even be ready for attorneys to come in and take their cases. The lack of key resources needed to address and organize the deluge of information relating to each individual client and the state of the countries they were fleeing complicated matters enormously.
Purcell said he got the message that, "We don't need Clarence Darrow to come into court and pound the table. We need really basic infrastructure and clerical resources."
The firm set up an office in a conference center for outside attorneys to use during breaks in the San Francisco Immigration Court's calendar. Paralegal Cynthia Hernandez designed a database to organize case information for unaccompanied minors in Northern California and legal secretary Roseann Cirelli signed up to assist visiting attorneys.
The firm also endowed $30,000 fellowships at Centro Legal de la Raza - where Purcell is now a board member - and at the UC Hastings Center for Gender and Refugee Studies.
Centro Legal de la Raza is a legal aid organization founded by UC Berkeley School of Law students in 1969. The UC Hastings program helps with ancillary information important to the cases.
"They do a lot of the background work as far as country conditions and the supplementary material people need to submit in order to establish their need for asylum," Purcell said.
In February the firm won asylum for a young man who fled Guatemala at 17 to escape local gangs that he refused to join. He spent a month on the notorious Mexican train known as La Bestia [The Beast] before crossing the desert alone. He's now attending City College of San Francisco and studying to become a nurse.
After the case management system was up and running, the firm started taking on pro bono cases. For partner Simona Agnolucci it was a chance to share one of her greatest passions with her colleagues.
Agnolucci volunteered at a Centro Legal de la Raza immigration clinic during law school and continued that focus as a clerk at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, taking advantage of the enormous immigration docket there.
"When I entered private practice after that I made it a priority to always have an immigration case at all times," she said. "I've done 9th Circuit immigration appeals and really developed a practice of helping women and children who are fleeing persecution. That's my passion."
It also turned out to be one of the best professional growth experiences she ever had.
"For me as a young lawyer, my first trial was an immigration case that involved putting on nine witnesses by myself, two experts, doing the whole trial, soup to nuts, alone, preparing the witnesses, everything," she said. "I feel that I learned more working on that case than I did on anything else I did as a junior associate."
Now she's giving that same experience to the associates she supervises on immigration cases. The firm devoted 2,600 attorney hours to immigration pro bono work over the first 11 months of the year, with about 1,540 of that going specifically to unaccompanied minors cases.
The work also provides a morale boost to non-legal staff.
"When a pro bono victory comes across the email we get excited emails from clerks and paralegals and everybody," Purcell said.
The attorneys nominated Cirelli, the secretary leading the support efforts, for the annual non-lawyer pro bono award presented by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights. Cirelli is herself the daughter of Italian immigrants. Purcell said the partners had trouble convincing Cirelli that they weren't joking when she won.
"I had to say 'No, really, Roseann, your work has been recognized,'" Purcell said. "She's done a lot of work and done it very selflessly."