Each year, Davis Wright Tremaine honors one associate at the firm who has demonstrated an outstanding commitment to pro bono service. This year, the Heart of Justice Award was given to Kathleen Cullinan of our Los Angeles office, who provided nearly 200 hours of pro bono legal service in 2013 alone.
Cullinan cultivated her strong passion for public affairs and the First Amendment while working as a newspaper reporter after college. She later spent a year as a legal fellow with The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which provides free legal assistance to journalists. She joined DWT’s renowned media team upon graduating from law school in 2012.
You started out as a journalist. How did you become drawn to the law?
I was a cops reporter at the Naples Daily News and it drove me crazy that I always had to rely on someone else to understand what was going on procedurally or to know whether things were being done fairly or unfairly. I wanted to be able to read and understand an appellate opinion myself.
What brought you to DWT?
I always knew I wanted to do media law, and this is the premier place for that. When I was in law school, my now-fiancé was working for the firm and was deeply embedded in the DWT community. Through him I got to know [D.C. partner] Laura Handman and [L.A. partners] Kelli Sager and Alonzo Wickers, who were all so wonderful. I thought about joining a Big Law firm to start, but I couldn’t wait to be part of this inspired group of lawyers who care so much about the work they do and the principles they work for. For them, the practice of law is as important as the business of law, and I knew that from the moment I met Bob Corn-Revere [D.C. partner and chair of the firm’s Pro Bono Committee].
How did you become so strongly involved with pro bono work?
Pro bono fits naturally and easily into the media practice, where you get these big, high-impact cases involving the Freedom of Information Act and the First Amendment, and I was eager to take advantage of the long-haul cases we take on. Most of the pro bono opportunities I got in the past year were generously shared with me by [San Francisco partner] Tom Burke, who has a tremendous dedication to pro bono and pulled me into multiple cases early on. One of the matters I worked on most was First Amendment Coalition v. Dep’t of Justice, where our client sued under FOIA for a set of “drone memos” that set out the government’s legal analysis and purported justification for the targeted killing of Americans abroad. Tom and the senior associate on the case, Jonathan Segal, let me draft our supplemental briefing, which argued that the government was abusing legal doctrines that exist to protect our deepest national security secrets. I also worked with Tom on the successful effort to make the federal government allow asylum interview notes to be released to asylum seekers.
Were there any particular lessons that came from that work?
It may sound trite, but it’s exciting to find out that believing in your position can be such a powerful legal strategy. Candidly, I came to a couple of these cases a bit worried about our chances of winning. I would read the case law, especially in the area of national security, and feel like the decks were stacked against us. But Tom never lost faith and pulled out incredible wins. He showed that we could piece together the law that was on our side, point the ambiguities in our favor, and lasso the force of logic and public policy. It left me feeling embarrassed of my cynicism, but what a great lesson—that force of will and principle can fuel legal success.
Any regrets about your changed career path?
No, I think it’s an honor to be a lawyer. Seriously, even with all the competition and prestige-obsession; even in an age of painful unemployment; and even with my own student debt. I think it’s an honor because a lawyer has the keys to the kingdom, so to speak. You know, or have the ability to know, all these things about people’s entitlements, what they’re empowered to do, and where they’ve been wronged. But there’s no perfect correlation between those who’ve been unfairly denied, or are standing there with meaningless rights, and those who have the money to be vindicated. Hardly. My end of the social pact, as one holder of some keys, is to inform and help broadly, as often as I can.