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Law Firms Need to Keep an Eye on Lawyers Performing Pro Bono Work

Where a law firm allows an associate to handle a matter pro bono through a legal aid organization, does the firm retain an obligation to supervise the associate? Yes, said Acting Supreme Court Justice Ellen Gesmer in a domestic relations dispute where advice provided to a pro bono client by a Skadden staff attorney was so rife with errors that it justified voiding the ensuing settlement stipulation. The New York Law Journal covers the story.

Lisa Poursine, a staff attorney for Skadden volunteered through the firm's pro bono program to handle a case for inMotion, a non-profit legal group that assists low-income women in matrimonial, family and immigration law cases. Poursine inaccurately advised the client that she her divorce would go smoothly if the client signed a settlement agreement which made it more difficult for the client to relocate to another state as she hoped. Even worse, the settlement agreement forced the client to waive her rights to future claims for equitable distribution. The Poursine explained to the client that without the settlement agreement, the case would be constested and that Poursine lacked the experience or resources to handle a contested matter. 

The client sought to vacate the settlement agreement, testifying that Poursine never explained the equitable distribution waiver provisions or that the settlement would make it more difficult for the client to relocate. The Judge found that Poursine's advice was inaccurate and confusing, and resulted from lack of "appropriate training and supervision." Accordingly, she vacated the settlement.

Skadden says that it accords the same standard of care to pro bono clients as paying clients and now has an adequate system in place to assure that lawyers handling pro bono matters are properly supervised. Even so, this case is likely to make law firms with displaced associates think twice about dispatching them to legal aid organizations if the firm must retain a supervisory role. 

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on June 19, 2009 at 03:07 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)


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