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Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld

Joseph Sorkin, with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.

Describe your firm’s philosophy on pro bono service.

Our pro bono practice focuses on leveraging the expertise, experience and passions of all members of the Akin Gump team to maximize access to justice, community development and the rule of law. We have rejected any mandatory pro bono requirement; instead, we rely on the initiative and commitment of our individual lawyers. We are also firmly committed to providing financial support to the legal services organizations with which we partner.

Of the big cases your firm recently worked on, one included representing eight Bolivian families in U.S. federal court litigation in Mamani v. sanchez de lozada and Sanchez Berzain.

Tell us more about that case and how you reached the outcome. We started this case with Harvard’s Human Rights Program in 2007, identifying plaintiffs in Bolivia to address the extrajudicial killings by the Bolivian military under the command of the president and defense minister in September to October 2003. We filed the complaint in September 2007, alleging violations of the Torture Victims Protection Act. We litigated the case over the next 11 years, including two appeals and discovery in Bolivia, Colombia and the U.S. In 2018, a jury trial was held in the Southern District of Florida, the first time a former head of state had been held to account in the U.S. for human rights abuses. The jury heard from dozens of witnesses from Bolivia, and returned an award of $10 million.

What was the most satisfying aspect of that key case?

Our nine plaintiffs—who had lost wives and husbands and daughters and fathers, and waited almost 15 years for justice—were in the courtroom when the jury returned the verdict. Their tears of joy and relief, and the recognition by a U.S. jury that the former president and defense minister were responsible for the killings, were more meaningful than the $10 million verdict.

Discuss other key pro bono matters recently completed by the firm.

Monitoring implementation of the UN Model Law on the Recognition and Protection of Human Rights Defenders in the Philippines, Mongolia, Nepal and Uganda; Negotiating State of California bond financing for Ednovate, a charter school network; Supporting the legal function of the National Revenue Authority of Sierra Leone; Winning parole for a client sentenced in 1993 to mandatory life without parole as a juvenile, which the Supreme Court has since held violates the Eighth Amendment; Obtaining a NYS Education Department order for students with disabilities, requiring their school to comply with laws protecting their educational rights; Securing asylum for professors who fled their home countries (including Turkey and Syria) and were brought to the U.S. by the Scholar Rescue Fund.

Why does your pro bono work matter to you as a lawyer?

I choose to take on pro bono cases based on a client’s need or my belief in a particular cause—in Mamani, it was both. The personal engagement—and resulting connections—force me to think differently about why and how I practice law and what I contribute to the community. As a result, I am able to make a positive impact, while simultaneously bettering myself as a citizen and attorney.

Responses submitted by Steven Schulman, a pro bono partner at Akin Gump, and Joseph Sorkin, a litigation partner at the firm and lead counsel for the Bolivia matter.