In a firm where commitment to pro bono work is strong, the San Francisco office of Davis Wright Tremaine is particularly committed. Of the eight DWT offices around the U.S., San Francisco devoted the most hours to pro bono work, per attorney, in 2013.

Leading the charge, as he has for many years, has been Thomas R. Burke, a partner in our media group. Burke has a national reputation for his work on free speech and public records litigation, and this past year he pursued a string of important pro bono matters. For example:

Burke's client, Jeffrey Martins, obtained a nationwide settlement with the Department of Homeland Security that will benefit all asylum applicants. The settlement undoes a recent federal practice of withholding from applicants for asylum, under the Freedom of Information Act, notes from their interviews with officers at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Such notes can be critical to winning asylum. Under the settlement, the federal government agreed to change its practice and to train its employees and ensure that the notes will no longer be categorically withheld. Former DWT associate Jeff Glasser also did significant work on the case, which was done in collaboration with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.

On behalf of the First Amendment Coalition, and assisted by associates Jon Segal and Kathleen Cullinan, Burke continues to pursue a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Justice that seeks to compel the release of an Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) memorandum on the legality of the Executive Branch’s decision to execute U.S. citizens overseas who are believed to be terrorists. The OLC memo has been the subject of widespread, international discussion since the killing of an American-born U.S. citizen and al-Qaeda operative by a CIA drone strike in Yemen in 2011.

With associate Jeanne Sheahan and partners Bruce Johnson and Rochelle Wilcox, Burke has been providing defense in a libel complaint against CalCoastNews, an independent, online news source that produces in-depth, investigative stories in the public interest for San Luis Obispo County.

For client, Burke is pursuing a FOIA case that seeks to compel the IRS to make all 990 forms—which are filed by every nonprofit in the country—accessible in a machine-readable format. Also assisting on the case are L.A. associate Dan Laidman and Ronnie London, of counsel in D.C.

Representing the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), Burke assisted partner Rochelle Wilcox in an appeal before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that led the Judicial Conference, which oversees administration of the U.S. judicial courts, to change its rules and allow nonprofits to potentially obtain fee waivers for access to the federal court’s electronic court-filing system. Burke also provides ongoing vetting and pre-publication advice for CIR, which has been a Pulitzer Prize finalist each of the last two years.

In partnership with the Student Press Law Center, Burke (again assisted by Laidman) successfully pressured a school district in California’s Central Valley to withdraw proposed rules that would have required  high school athletes and club members to abide by social media guidelines that prohibited broad categories of speech. The dispute was closely watched across the country as school districts grapple with the growing use of social media by high school students.

Many other attorneys in DWT’s San Francisco office also provided significant assistance to pro bono clients last year:

  • On a referral from Legal Services for Children, associate Vidhya Prabhakaran helped secure a U Visa in October for a young woman from El Salvador, who fled from gang violence in her home country and then was significantly abused by the coyotes that brought her into the U.S. With assistance from Prabhakaran and others formerly at DWT, the client is now able to legally work in this country, and can begin her path to citizenship. As a result of his efforts, Prabhakaran will be honored by Legal Services for Children with a Pro Bono Leadership Award at the organization’s annual gala in May.
  • Jeanne Sheahan successfully represented a 13-year-old girl in her guardianship case, which was also on referral through Legal Services for Children.
  • Sanjay Nangia was teamed with a staff attorney from the Santa Clara County Public Defender’s office to assist with a major financial fraud case (27 felony counts) that settled prior to trial.
  • Don Buder provided contract review for an organization combating pesticides.
  • Michael Aparicio provided employment advice and counseling to a senior center.
  • Marc Fernandez and Saira Najam provided employment advice to an environmental organization.
  • Gerald George and Judith Droz Keyes served as mediators in U.S. District Court.
  • Allison Davis served an organization that works to help Haitian street children.
  • Several lawyers volunteered at the monthly Second Chance Legal Clinic, which assists clients who are working to overcome barriers to employment and housing due to past arrest and conviction records.

DWT’s San Francisco office continues to be a pace-setter, providing a great example of our commitment to pro bono services.

Complete Winter 2014 Pro Bono Report