Large law firms use pro bono hours to block unions in nonprofits

  • Public defenders are organizing, but some face resistance from their leadership.
  • Winston & Strawn represented pro bono the leadership of a legal aid group.
  • A partner of the firm also sits on the group’s board of directors. The staff said it was “amazing”.
  • See more stories on the Insider business page.

For more than a year, unionized staff at the Center for Family Representation, a New York City legal nonprofit, have been grappling with a labor dispute with management over a contract that could pay off. higher wages and increased job security.

The CFR is like many other legal aid groups, representing thousands of poor families in child service disputes and, in turn, expecting its lawyers to work long hours to process cases. hundreds of cases. In the negotiations, the centre’s lawyers and paralegals were represented by the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, a branch of the United Auto Workers, one of the largest and most influential unions in the country.

CFR management turned to Winston & Strawn. The white shoe company represented top companies anti-labor case in recent years – and even complaints having written parts of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which limited the power of American unions.

Winston & Strawn, staff members realized, also has a seat on the board of directors of the CFR.

“As a nonprofit, we are for the people. We try to help people, especially the needy,” CFR lawyer Tiffany Moseley told Insider. “To have an anti-union law firm working for a non-profit organization is just amazing.”

CFR employees are not alone. At least two other public defense organizations – the New York Legal Assistance Group and the Children’s Law Center – have relied on anti-union law firms that sit on their boards to advise them in their negotiations against their own staff.

The tension has sparked a wider struggle over the scope of the social missions of these nonprofits and the place of wealthy board members whose relationships can keep organizations afloat.

The dispute also highlights how large law firms are paid for this work and raises questions about whether they are using pro bono hours to try to defeat or weaken unions. Law firms often tout volunteer work on behalf of nonprofit organizations in the public interest and may receive limited tax breaks for the work. At least one lawyer for Winston & Strawn has used pro bono hours to keep public defenders from organizing.

Lawyers for nonprofit legal aid organizations unionize in record numbers

The tension at CFR comes amid a wave of unionization in New York’s legal nonprofits; at least 15 have formed unions since 2016. The membership of the Legal Aid Lawyers Association has risen from 1,000 to over 2,500 – a record, according to Alexi Shalom, spokesperson for the union.

In nine of these organizations, management accepted unionization after a card check, according to the union. Some organizations, like Queens Defenders, have waged fierce battles to prevent the formation of unions, demanding secret ballot elections by the National Labor Relations Board.

In New York, public defenders are not public employees but are hired by private third parties who contract with the city. Legal nonprofits typically advocate for people who cannot pay to be represented. They also tend to attract younger lawyers and paralegals who see their work as part of a social justice mission like tackling systemic racism or inequality.

The workload, these lawyers say, is often exhausting and can be much less lucrative than in a large firm representing companies in contractual disputes or securing intellectual property rights. They are also paid much less than their colleagues in large law firms. Last year, New York City passed a law ensuring that public defenders pay parity with city lawyers, raising the salary of an entry-level lawyer to around $ 70,000, according to two people with knowledge of the pay scales. .

Staff lawyers say it is “disappointing” that their managers are fighting the union

While unions have mushroomed in recent years, staff members of these nonprofits have been disturbed by their managers’ relationships with companies that typically negotiate against unions, they said.

One of the main sticking points in negotiations is “just cause” protection, which requires employers to present their reasons for sanctioning or firing an employee to a mediator.

“It’s very important, especially to me, being a person of color,” Moseley said. “There have been situations where people of color may have been fired during the day for no reason.”

While no staff member bluntly accused boards of having conflicts of interest, they said they felt working with law firms perceived to be anti-union was mission-more defiant. off their work.

“It’s really disappointing, and I think it reinforces my desire to better understand who is on our board and then what values ​​they represent,” said Laura Diewald, lawyer at the Children’s Law Center. The organization, which has Epstein Becker Green attorney Marc A. Mandelman as a member of the board, has hired another lawyer from the firm, Corey P. Argust, to represent management. The Children’s Law Center, Argust and a representative for Epstein did not return requests for comment.

When staff at the New York Legal Assistance Group announced their intention to unionize in 2019, their management hired Proskauer Rose, who represents sports leagues and Columbia University in their anti-union struggles, to attempt to prevent union formation.

“The fact that they hired Proskauer for some of their anti-union actions – there is someone on the board of Proskauer – was just a huge slap in the face,” said Alice Hindanov, paralegal at the association. . “How does that align with NYLAG’s mission? It doesn’t.”

Joseph Baumgarten, co-chair of Proskauer’s labor and employment department, sits on the board of directors of the New York Legal Assistance Group. Baumgarten has long represented management, but he made a few missteps, including getting fall by the NHL for its handling of a discrimination case.

Proskauer has not represented the New York Legal Assistance Group since staff members voted 152-29 to unionize in 2019. The firm did not respond to a request for comment. Louis DiLorenzo of Bond, Schoeneck & King now represents the organization in its collective negotiations.

Lawyers say there is no conflict in representing management

At CFR, staff members expressed frustration that the board did not reach out to staff members to hear their concerns and appeared to side with management.

“Ultimately, I hope my office board wants to value the voices of the staff,” a CFR employee told Insider, who asked to remain anonymous. “You hope they would be a little more neutral.”

A CFR representative did not return requests for comment. However, Winston’s partner on the association’s board of directors, Jeffrey L. Kessler, has worked alongside sports unions, including the National Football League Players Association and the National Basketball Players Association, his biography says. He is also representing the United States women’s soccer team in its lawsuit alleging that US Soccer underpays its players compared to male players.

“Winston & Strawn is proud of its voluntary association with the Center for Family Representation and I am personally honored to be a member of the CFR board of directors,” Kessler said in a statement. “There is no conflict between the work I do for professional athlete unions and the work of the CFR, which provides free legal and social services to families and youth and promotes social justice for black families. and brunettes. “

William G. Miossi, a Winston partner who represents CFR’s management in social negotiations, told Insider that he had been approached by the board to represent him and denied that there was a conflict of ‘interests in the company’s relationship with the association. The organization hired at least one other company, Seyfarth Shaw, to negotiate against the union.

“Jeff is a volunteer board member for a charity that provides legal services to people in need in New York City. We provide them with free legal advice as part of their employment contract as part of their commitment to legal services, ”said Miossi. . “Jeff Kessler has nothing to do with negotiating strategy or tactics. If you asked him tomorrow, he would have no idea what’s going on.

Large law firms use pro bono hours to show their social cachet

Staff members of some legal nonprofits have expressed concern that their organizations are spending funds to fight organizing efforts. While it’s not clear whether the New York Legal Assistance Group and the Children’s Law Center pay for their legal aid, the CFR has not paid for the work of Winston & Strawn.

“We provide 100% pro bono CFR legal services,” said Miossi.

The American Bar Association encourages lawyers to work at least 50 pro bono hours per year, “insisting that these services be provided to people of limited means or to non-profit organizations that serve the poor.” There is no obligation to use the hours for work-related causes.

Apart from a few limitations tax breaks, the value that pro bono work gives to large law firms lies in social capital. Nonprofits like CFR have board members from Credit Suisse, New York University, and Columbia Law, as well as other white shoe companies.

Law firms often tout their volunteer work in marketing materials. Winston & Strawn, for example, touts its work in helping women get equal pay and protecting the rights of immigrants. In one case, he joined forces with the Legal Aid Society, a labor union, in a lawsuit against the New York and New Jersey Port Authority. on a case of LGBTQ discrimination.

“It makes you sick anyway,” said the anonymous CFR employee of Winston & Strawn’s volunteer work on behalf of the nonprofit’s management, “but I’d rather they didn’t pay. not for that, especially while we are arguing over money. “

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