Dentons is the world’s largest law firm, spanning dozens of countries and hundreds of offices. With a strong dedication to pro bono work, Dentons lawyers and professionals have provided meaningful legal advice to charitable, religious, civic, community, government and educational organizations in furtherance of their organizational service to working with NGOs, nonprofits and social enterprises to provide much-needed legal assistance to low-income individuals and marginalized communities—veterans in distress, people with disabilities, asylum seekers, incarcerated individuals, domestic violence survivors, and victims of racial, religious, age, and gender and sexual orientation discrimination—whom they serve through legal clinics, one-on-one counseling or, if appropriate, class actions and appellate representation.
Ben Weinberg (Denton’s Pro Bono Partner) sat down with us to share a bit about his background and experience in the pro bono space, as well as the firm’s commitment to serving those in need of legal services.
Share a bit about your firm’s pro bono program:
Dentons has more than twenty locations in the United States and is the product of a series of combinations of smaller law firms. Each legacy firm had a deep culture and history of doing pro bono work, and as a combined Dentonsshare, a common dedication to serving the community.
We’re very involved in pro bono work around the country, but the type of work looks different depending on each office. For example, in Atlanta, there is a deep history of holding leadership positions both in the community and in legal aid organizations. In New York, there’s much more of a tradition of deep involvement with organizations rather than leadership. Overall, there is a real commitment to pro bono across the firm, but it looks different depending on where you are.
Tell us about your background. How did you get into pro bono management?
I have been the pro bono partner at Dentons for fifteen years. I attended law school for one specific purpose, to be a civil legal aid lawyer. I started my career as just that – a civil legal aid lawyer in the Englewood neighborhood office of, what is now, Legal Aid Chicago. That’s why I wanted to be a lawyer – I wanted to provide assistance to people who were underserved and who didn’t have access to justice. I ended up in this role for three years, and then I got a chance to clerk for a federal judge. After clerking, I ended up at a law firm, which I thought would be for a year, but ended up being for seven. I made partner at the firm, where I first-chaired trials amongst other things. I then got the opportunity to join the senior staff of the newly-elected Illinois Attorney General, Lisa Madigan. She hired me to run the office’s affirmative public interest litigation, and I absolutely loved it. Then out of the blue, I was recruited to apply for the position of pro bono partner at my current firm.
What’s your favorite aspect of this work?
I have been doing this for a long time and have longstanding relationships with legal services organizations around the country. Because of this, I’m able to identify opportunities for our lawyers and legal professionals to do really impactful and meaningful work. This is what I love most about my work.
There’s a through line in my career where I’m accessing resources to help people in the community. As a legal aid lawyer at the beginning, it was really me and my colleagues, and it was an uphill battle. And then at Jenner and Block, I was exposed to pro bono for the first time where I did death penalty work. Then I was in government – where I was a public interest lawyer with subpoena power. My current role is a logical continuation. I love collaborating with my current colleagues and what I’ve really focused a lot on is advancing collaboration among law firms to increase the impact of pro bono work – it’s a total blast!
I know a big part of your job recently has been working on the Lawyers Anti-Racism Alliance. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
One of the frustrations of the pro bono system is that it’s a whole bunch of independent volunteers, often aiming at the same end, but with no real coordination. And there’s, of course, a ton of different advocacy organizations, civil rights organizations and legal aid organizations. They all have similar goals, but they’re not coordinated in a way that can really maximize the impact.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in the summer of 2020, a small group of pro bono counsel were tasked by our firms to come up with an idea of what we could do to address systemic racism and the law (other than our normal volunteering and partnering with different advocacy organizations). From that, we came up with the idea of a Law Firm Anti-Racism Alliance. We now have more than 300 law firms and thousands of volunteers.
Through this Alliance, we have filed amicus briefs in the United States Supreme Court (and were actually quoted by Justice Sotomayor), done a ton of research and partnered with some of the leading civil rights organizations throughout the country. We’re also working in places where law firms typically have not done pro bono work to advance racial justice, such as Oklahoma. We have really become a go-to place where advocacy organizations can come and find a centralized repository of legal resources, as well as a strong community where law firms can work together to advance racial justice.
We’re a freestanding nonprofit with a board of directors and advisory council made up of general councils of large corporations and managing partners of large law firms. This project is a strong example of the theory that we had – by collaborating and working together we can create a larger impact.
How do you use Paladin to support your pro bono program?
For firms like Dentons, that have small offices spread across the country, the traditional model of receiving emails from legal services organizations with an abundance of opportunities doesn’t work well. We don’t have enough people for that method to garner strong results. For that reason, Paladin has been hugely effective because lawyers can instead go on to the platform and find what’s available that meets their interest and availability. Paladin is the best route to doing more traditional legal services work, such as work on behalf of domestic violence survivors, tenants, and public benefits recipients. People may have a limited amount of time to give and with Paladin they can go on and find opportunities that they can take on immediately. I’m very excited about continuing to ramp up that kind of work.
What is the pro bono case/outcome you are most proud of?
I’m blessed in my job because I get to be proud of so much, so frequently. I’m particularly proud of our Domestic Violence Appeals Project. This is a Dentons-only project where we work with Legal Aid Chicago and other domestic violence groups.
Through this project, we’ve improved the law. Now when you look at the leading precedent under the Illinois Domestic Violence Act, there are three published opinions from our project. In one case in particular, Sanchez versus Torres, the judge refused to enter the standard domestic violence order protection and refused to use the regular form because it was too formal. The judge told our client that her former boyfriend still loved her and didn’t want to soil that with this form. We then appealed and the order was reversed. In the appeal, the appellate court was very clear that judges aren’t free to ignore these form orders. In this opinion, the court wrote a powerful statement about how domestic violence is antithetical to love. It’s about control and about power. There is no reason why a survivor should appreciate that someone still loves them when they are being harassed and abused.
As lawyers, we say we want to advance access to justice. But then we want to do more, right? We want to have a lasting impact. And so, I’m very proud of this project because not only did we help our client, but we also really helped advance the law. That’s what I think this job is all about and what I’m most proud of.