McDermott, Will & Emery



Pro Bono Rank Firm
(Am Law 200 Rank)
Am Law
Pro Bono Score
Average Pro Bono
Hours Per Lawyer
% of Lawyers
With More Than 20 Hours
McDermott Will (17)


When Ned Leibensperger retired as president of the Boston Bar Association in 2006, he was looking for a case where he could make a systemic difference. At just about the same time, the nonprofit Children's Rights set about to change Michigan's system of children's services. The Am Law Pro Bono 100Leibensperger knew that his firm, McDermott, Will & Emery, gives priority to pro bono under the theme "Kids First," and he signed on. The result, on the eve of trial in summer 2008, was the historic class action settlement of Dwayne B. v. Granholm.

"The state settled because it was crystal clear that they were going to have a very aggressive trial on their hands, and Ned was a major part of that," says Children's Rights founder Marcia Lowry. (Attorneys for the state could not be reached for comment.)

McDermott donated a five-person team to trial preparation, while advancing $300,000 for experts and other costs. Liebensperger, who ordinarily tries professional liability cases, participated in everything from trial strategy to settlement talks to scut work. "It was tremendously rewarding," he says. "Just what I hoped in terms of having an impact."

The settlement was tailored to Michigan's unique dysfunctions. It calls for a small army of new specialists to license 7,000 unlicensed foster care homes—and to find adoptive parents for the 6,000 eligible kids who are not adopted. It also calls for a range of best practices to improve care and avoid abuse, all to be monitored by federal court.

Children's Rights files a class action about once every fifteen months as a prod to reform state programs for children's services, and it expects to step up the pace because of the impending wave of budget cuts. Two such actions are pending. The nonprofit is collaborating with Weil, Gotshal & Manges in Rhode Island, where a dismissal on narrow grounds is under appeal. And it is collaborating with Kaye Scholer in Oklahoma, where the case is in active discovery following class certification.

"It's critically important to have major law firm participation in these cases for a whole range of reasons," says Lowry. "It enhances the work. It enables us to spread our resources further. And it gives us the benefit of the firm's prestige. It's important for local lawyers and the judge to see it's not just some do-good group behind the case."

—Michael D. Goldhaber | July 1, 2009

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