Keker & Van Nest LLP made its mark on the pro bono scene last year with sterling work on a slew of legal issues facing undocumented immigrants and also scored a major win to halt preemptive environmental litigation by Shell Gulf Oil of Mexico Inc., securing its place among Law360's Pro Bono Firms of 2015.
The California litigation boutique's 74 lawyers logged 8,031 pro bono hours, yielding an average of 108 hours per attorney and pacing well ahead of the 96.55-hour average of our entire list.
Providing top-flight legal representation free of charge presents an obvious benefit for the firm's many clients, but Keker's pro bono program has also proven to be a boon for the attorneys themselves, according to partner Daniel Purcell.
“It really toughens you up and imposes discipline on you that pays off down the road,” Purcell told Law360. “We want people to feel like they are doing some good for the sake of doing something good; we feel like that's a good attitude to promote, and people have responded to it.”
Purcell explained that while Keker maintains institutional relationships with the American Civil Liberties Union and many other advocacy groups that provide the firm many pro bono opportunities, attorneys are also encouraged to seek out their own cases in areas that interest and invigorate them.
Partner Rachael Meny said the firm's embrace of pro bono extends far beyond lip service and adherence to state bar obligations.
“A commitment to pro bono work is fundamentally at the heart of this law firm, and it's very important to everybody in this law firm to spend our time and resources on doing pro bono work as well as paying work,” Meny told Law360. “It's an important cultural piece at Keker, and it's an important part of what shapes the firm.”
Over the past year, much of Keker's pro bono might was focused on immigration. California Attorney General Kamala Harris invited the firm last summer to a brainstorming session aimed at addressing the long list of legal quandaries raised by a dramatic increase in unaccompanied minors pouring into the U.S. from Mexico and Central America.
Keker's work began modestly, donating $60,000 and clerical services to a pair of direct action organizations, the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies and the Centro Legal de la Raza, aiming to secure asylum for the nearly 2,000 immigrant children who had made their way to the Bay Area.
But soon enough, Keker's lawyers were hard at work doing what they do best: litigating. Among them was partner Simona Agnolucci, who was able to earn asylum for a 15-year-old Honduran boy who fled his country after relentless stalking and finally a stabbing from a violent local gang.
The work was a perfect fit for Agnolucci, who told Law360 that she has taken a great interest in legal issues concerning the rights of women and children. But while she and the other Keker lawyers are skilled litigators, securing asylum for the unaccompanied minors was no exercise in rubber-stamping.
That is because asylum is afforded to foreign nationals who flee from persecution on the basis of nationality, race, religion, political beliefs or “membership in a particular social group,” the latter of which can prove a tricky catchall category with nebulous boundaries, Agnolucci said.
“It's a very rapidly evolving area of the law where there is not a lot of good precedent, and you find yourself having to make arguments about why forcible gang recruitment constitutes a case for asylum,” she said. “You'll find a lot of immigration judges who want to dismiss domestic violence or gay persecution or rape.”
Keker also flexed its immigration litigation muscles in a sweeping California class action on behalf of undocumented immigrants that were swept up in a dragnet of so-called mandatory detention, under which federal agents would routinely arrest immigrants for minor past crimes and hold them without bond while they faced deportation.
The case centered on two disparate readings of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which called for federal detention of undocumented immigrants in custody for crimes only after they are released from jail. Government officials had been ignoring the “when released” provision of the statute by throwing the immigrants into jail at any time for a past offense, the firm said.
Alongside the ACLU and Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Keker tackled the massive and complicated case, which contained scores of thorny procedural and constitutionality issues, eventually earning an injunction from U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers.
Another of the firm's prominent pro bono victories came outside the immigration sphere as Meny led a team representing a collection of environmental and native Alaskan groups that had been targeted by Shell in a dispute over federal drilling permits granted to the energy giant.
Shortly after Shell received permission to drill off the Alaskan coastline from the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, the company filed suit against the environmental and native groups, looking for a declaratory judgment that the permits were issued lawfully.
If allowed to stand, Shell's move would pose a troubling precedent for any future litigation over contentious environmental regulations, Meny said.
“Environmental groups and other public interest groups have to make decisions about where they want to spend their money, and by being able to sue preemptively, Shell could force them into litigation and force them to spend time and money and find defense counsel for something they never intended to bring themselves,” she told Law360.
While the case fell short at the district court level, the Ninth Circuit determined that no adverse legal interests existed between Shell and the groups targeted in the suit, stopping Shell's litigation in its tracks.
Meny and fifth-year associate Justina Kahn Sessions said they were confident in their likelihood of success from the start but acknowledged that the lack of reliable precedent created an air of uncertainty.
“It was virtually unprecedented,” Sessions said. “There wasn't a whole lot of law to point to, we could only find one case where the beneficiary of an agency action had attempted to preemptively file a lawsuit.”