Global Pro Bono Program of the Year, Multiple Jurisdictions: Fighting Human Trafficking Initiative
Honoree: White & Case
In early 2012 the United Nations was searching for real-life stories of trafficked persons who made their way through the courts. But there were none in clear view. "While people talk a lot about criminal trafficking, even we couldn't find concrete examples," says Martin Fowke of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. "We could find arrest and conviction numbers, but there was nothing behind them."
So the U.N. leaned on White & Case for help. To the firm, building a globe-straddling database of human trafficking law was a long-sought opportunity. "We had been hoping for many years to truly use our global network on a pro bono matter," says Someera Khokhar, a finance partner who is active in pro bono. "Then this came across my desk." On November 9, 2011, Khokhar sent out an all-points recruiting email. Within 48 hours, she had some 200 volunteers from 26 White & Case offices. "The U.N. tried to do it themselves and had 30 cases after 18 months," says White & Case head of social responsibility Jo Weiss. "In four months our firm swallowed the world."
Khokhar ran the matter like a high-stakes cross-border transaction, which, after all, it was. She tapped the firm's ace librarians to find resources and created a system for online document management. Khokhar recruited 27 partners, organized a hierarchy of team leaders, and held regular conference calls. Scouring public records in 163 countries, the team found over 600 cases. Now there is a body of case law that will make the crime better understood and make enforcement more visible—and hopefully spur more prosecution.
White & Case's human trafficking initiative includes several other matters that would be the headliners at most other shops. To help set up a hotline for the nonprofit Polaris Project, lawyers in Bratislava, Brussels, Warsaw, and the United States studied the legal vulnerability of trafficking victims in 10 countries. In a project referred by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, attorneys in Istanbul, Johannesburg, London, Milan, Paris, and Singapore checked the laws of seven countries for compliance with a new treaty that extends labor protections to household servants—including millions of girls under age 15.
The U.N. database and these geographically sprawling reports prove the worth of the global practice approach that White & Case has taken to pro bono since 2010. But what set White & Case apart from other candidates for The American Lawyer Global Citizenship Award was its refusal to be satisfied with reports alone. Pro bono practice head Ian Forrester continually asks: "What are we going to do to make sure that our work doesn't just sit on a shelf?" Khokhar echoes the point. "What's key for us is that our database isn't static," she says. "To create civil prosecutions makes it an ongoing project."
A team of New York litigators led by White & Case partner Gregory Little is now doing just that. As the U.N. project was winding down in late 2012, a nonprofit called the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center began to promote civil suits against traffickers. Little attended a training session and—seeing a chance to take White & Case's war on trafficking into the trenches—signed on to the cause. Known for tobacco, securities, and pro bono education litigation, Little plans to bring the fourth civil sex trafficking suit in U.S. history. He hopes it will be the first to reach trial. Little has a story to tell that is depressingly universal, disturbingly local, and sure to make the jurors in a Detroit courthouse cry.
Little's client, A.S., was born into a family of engineers in a small Ukrainian town. While attending college in Kiev, she went looking for a job. (This account of what followed is based on the allegations in her draft civil complaint, and the related U.S. indictment for sex trafficking, which resulted in pleas of guilty to lesser charges. White & Case planned to file the civil complaint as this story went to press—and the allegations have not been proved.)
A.S. responded to an ad for a waitress, but at the interview, she was told that the $5-a-night waitress position was not available. Her interviewer, Veniamin Gonikman, persuaded her to become a stripper for $50 a night at a Kiev club instead.
Several months later, knowing that A.S. was unhappy, Gonikman offered her a lucrative job at a restaurant in Virginia Beach, Virginia, that did not involve taking off her clothes. He arranged for a student visa and airline tickets, gave her $400 in cash, and promised she could return to the Ukraine within six months.