Gibson Dunn Taps Associate as Its First Pro Bono Director

, The Am Law Daily

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Katherine Marquart
Katherine Marquart

Like many would-be lawyers, California native Katherine Marquart was intent on practicing public interest law when she entered Georgetown University Law Center in 2003. But after spending a summer working in Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher's Los Angeles office, she decided to join the firm full-time and, at least temporarily, push her altruistic ambitions to the background. Marquart's commitment to helping the less-fortunate never abated, though, and now, after seven years as a Gibson Dunn associate, she has found a way to combine her passion for doing good with a career in big law. The firm announced this week that Marquart, 31, has been appointed to the newly created position of pro bono director, a job that gives her oversight of Gibson Dunn's entire pro bono docket around the world.

While it's not new for Am Law 100 firms to create such roles—or to fill them with lawyers from within their own ranks—the job Marquart is taking on is a first for Gibson Dunn. The firm has traditionally managed its pro bono efforts on an office-by-office basis, with a firmwide committee meeting quarterly to discuss each office's work, as well as broader initiatives. The Am Law Daily caught up with Marquart this week to discuss, among other things, why the firm decided to create this position, how her life has changed since taking on the role in late August, and what she misses about being a law firm associate. (The interview has been edited for length, grammar, style, and clarity.)

Take me through your career path, given that there are other associates out there who would love to make the same leap you've made.

When I went to law school, I always thought I would end up doing public interest work, either involving children’s rights or something with an international human rights perspective. Then, of course, I ended up at Gibson, and I thought, this will be a great springboard for my career. I'll learn a lot and be able to go wherever I want after that. Lo and behold, I ended up really liking firm life. I started working here right after law school as a litigation associate. I wouldn’t say I ever specialized. I did mainly general commercial litigation, and spent the bulk of the last four years on the Chevron case.* But I also from the start spent a lot of time working on pro bono cases.

What kind of cases did you work on?

My fourth year I worked almost exclusively on a pro bono case I brought into the firm. Ultimately it became a class action on behalf of 2,300 kids living in the East L.A. area who had been diagnosed with autism. They were all from poor families, many were minorities, and they were all receiving state-funded services related to their autism. Then, in the summer of 2010, all of a sudden these kids had their services terminated, supposedly because of a bill passed by the California legislature. But if you reviewed the bill, it was very clear that it did not authorize termination of critical medical treatment for kids with autism. We filed a complaint and sought a preliminary injunction order in L.A. Superior Court. Ultimately, we won the preliminary injunction order. The state agencies then agreed to a very favorable settlement agreement that reinstated all the kids’ services on a permanent basis.

How were you able to spend nearly your entire fourth year on a pro bono case and step away from billable work?

To be honest, when I first brought the case in, I never thought it would turn into what it did. I thought as a fourth-year associate, I’ll never pull this off. But then it just kept going. There was a point where I had to step back and say, if this is going to work, I have to devote myself full-time to this. I talked to the attorneys I was working with on other cases and they were really understanding and said, go for it. I've spent about 1,000 hours on the case, with the great majority in 2010.

How did working on that case affect you?

It was a big turning point in my career. It was the first time I had led a case from start to finish, and it was really fulfilling. I felt like, this is why I went to law school, this is what I love doing, and this is what I want to do moving forward. But I wasn’t really sure how to translate that into a full-time job. I figured, I’ll stick it out here at Gibson until I figure that out. I continued to work on pro bono cases and got involved in the firm’s pro bono committee and community service committee. Just about a year ago, the idea for this position came about.

Who's idea was it?

It’s a job that exists at a lot of other firms, actually, but I was not aware of that. Here in L.A. it’s pretty uncommon. There are only two other people in a similar position: David Lash at O’Melveny & Myers, and Scot Fishman at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips. Because Gibson is very much an L.A.–based firm traditionally, maybe that’s one reason we were a little slow to the party. I learned about this type of position and talked to [pro bono committee chair and Gibson Dunn partner] Scott Edelman about the idea. The two of us thought it would be a really good fit and really good timing for Gibson. The firm’s pro bono work has really grown quite exponentially over the last five years. It was very much needed in my opinion and in the firm’s opinion.

What do you hope to accomplish in the new position?

One goal is to increase the role that some of our international offices play in pro bono work. There are also really interesting opportunities to get involved with internationally. In two recent examples, we’ve been working with Lawyers Without Borders, and we just joined the panel of the Human Dignity Trust, a London-based NGO that works to decriminalize homosexual conduct in foreign countries. Another thing: I would like to increase the opportunities in the transactional area, bringing in some broader options to excite attorneys who have not in the past worked on pro bono. One big goal of mine is to be available as a resource to associates with questions on pro bono cases, to encourage junior associates to take on a case when they might not otherwise because they’ll feel like they aren’t totally alone. Then, finally, to increase the high-profile, high-impact cases that we take on. Firms have such great resources that public interest agencies often don’t, and we should make them available in cases where we can make a big impact on a group of people or in changing a law that needs changing.

What aspects of the job have you enjoyed most so far?

One of the fun things is being a resource for associates. For example, a San Francisco associate called me two weeks ago. She’s a fifth-year, and feels like she hasn’t been getting a lot of meaty legal research and writing assignments lately. She wants to develop those skills and wanted to know whether I could help her do that. It was fun to brainstorm what would be a fit. One thing I’m definitely focusing on is looking for cases and opportunities that fit the needs of our associates.

How has the dynamic changed between you and partners to whom you previously reported?

I was nervous when I first made calls to people I was working with to tell them, I’m no longer going to be working on your case because I’m no longer going to be an associate. Everyone was incredibly supportive. It was important to Gibson when this position was created to have someone from within the firm fill it. I think that was really smart. It’s been a real asset to have been here for seven years and really have roots and connections.

Does Gibson Dunn have a mandatory minimum for pro bono?

We do not. We are signatories to the [Pro Bono Institute’s] Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge, so we encourage all of our attorneys to aim for 60 hours per year. But there’s no mandatory minimum.

Is part of your job to cajole people to do more pro bono?

As a firm we already are excelling in terms of pro bono hours, and for the past five or six years since we became signatories we’ve always exceeded the 60-hour average. Certainly one thing I am going to be trying to do is look at who’s not doing pro bono work and figure out whether it's because they don’t have opportunities that are interesting or helpful to them. If that’s the case, can I help bridge that gap? [Gibson Dunn ranked 29th in The American Lawyer's latest Pro Bono Report, with its attorneys clocking an average of 86 hours of pro bono work apiece in 2012.]

How has your workload changed?

I would say I have a little bit more control over my schedule than I did before. I anticipate traveling a fair amount, so in that sense, I’m still going to be busy and the hours are going to be a little bit unpredictable. All in all, I envision this role as offering a more manageable lifestyle than a senior associate's lifestyle.

Is there anything you miss about being an associate?

I was in our New York office last week and visited all of my colleagues working hard to get ready for the Chevron case. I’d been working on it for so long, so it’s been an odd feeling to watch it from the outside rather than be in the trenches with them. I miss being a part of that team. But I’m at least here and cheering from the outside.

*Editor's note: Gibson Dunn is serving as Chevron's lead counsel in a long-running legal battle with Ecuadorian plaintiffs over environmental contamination in the South American country allegedly caused by Chevron predecessor Texaco. As part of the litigation, Chevron has sued lead plaintiffs counsel Steven Donziger and his Ecuadorian allies in a fraud and racketeering case that went to trial in New York federal court Tuesday. Sibling publication The Am Law Litigation Daily has covered the case closely.

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