Pro Bono Net would like to recognize the thousands of volunteer lawyers who make a huge difference for those in need. We are celebrating Pro Bono Week, October 25-31, by honoring those dedicated volunteers. Each day we are spotlighting a pro bono volunteer in the community on our organization’s website in the Volunteer Profile section. Today’s spotlight is Heather McDevitt, a Partner at White & Case LLP.
Heather McDevitt is a litigation partner at White & Case LLP. She is the head of the firm’s Global Pharmaceuticals and Healthcare Group, and a member of the Firm’s Partnership Committee. Today’s volunteer feature gives us a very special personal insight into pro bono from a partner perspective at one of the nation’s leading law firms. It provides some useful advice and guidance that we hope will serve as an inspiration for many others to volunteer and join the collective effort to ensure fairness for all in our justice system.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
My family originally is from New York, but we moved around a bit during my childhood. I spent the first half of my childhood in Burlington, Vermont and moved to Austin, Texas for the second half. I went to college at Wellesley and studied law at Albany Law School. I’ve been with White & Case since 2002 and have been practicing law since 1993. At White & Case, I’m a litigation partner with a focus on representing life sciences and pharma companies. I’m also the head of the Firm’s Global Pharmaceuticals and Healthcare Group and a member of the Firm’s Partnership Committee
How did you become interested in pro bono legal work?
I’ve always been interested in the aspects of our justice system that don’t work as well, or as fairly, as they should. I have seen firsthand how the system doesn’t work for some individuals, and sometimes creates results that are unfair and arbitrary. I really wanted to see what I could do as a private practitioner to help chip away at that, even if the immediate impact of my efforts was only at an individual level.
I started working on pro bono matters as a very young associate. I was a member of a team representing a man who was on death row in Alabama. I worked on the case for about 13 years, starting at the state level post-conviction phase until its conclusion. In some respects I felt like I grew up working on that case; over time I became one of our client’s two lead lawyers and served as a primary point of support for him throughout that time. Over the years I worked closely with Bryan Stevenson and Randy Susskind of the Equal Justice Initiative – two people who have had a tremendous impact on my professional development – and they asked me to lead the Eighth Amendment challenge to Alabama’s method of execution by lethal injection in addition to the work we were doing for our longstanding client.
Ultimately our client was executed in 2007, and I took a break from working on pro bono cases for a time. Recently though, I am leading a team representing Mark Schand, a man who spent nearly 27 years in prison after being convicted of a murder that he did not commit. He was exonerated, and we have filed a civil rights lawsuit on his behalf to compensate him and his family for the decades he lost as a result of his wrongful conviction.
What would you advise someone who is thinking about volunteering?
My best advice would be to stop thinking about it and just do it. As lawyers we may become very concerned about how pro bono work will best fit into our practice and how it lines up with our experience, but these should not always be the deciding factors. You could find a type of dispute or other pro bono engagement that really interests you or that you have prior experience in. Or you can work on a matter that is different from your everyday practice, but that would nevertheless benefit from your judgment and acumen. Both types of engagements are truly beneficial.
There are so many needs in both the criminal and civil justice systems that are going unfulfilled. For example, a significant percentage of our population has no access to our civil justice system due to the cost of that access – they are in a bind because while they don’t qualify for legal aid, they certainly cannot afford a lawyer. That is not a sustainable state of affairs when it comes to the legitimacy of our system of justice. We just need smart, capable and willing lawyers to devote some time to these matters. I think the rewards manifest themselves pretty quickly for people who are on the fence about taking on pro bono work, as they realize they can really make a difference, even on a micro-level.
To me, this actually is part of a much larger issue that we as a profession need to come to grips with in the near term. It seems like now, more than ever, the US public is very cynical about our institutions. Having a strong, fair, and accessible system of justice is really important for the public’s confidence. I believe that, perhaps different from other professions, legal professionals have an obligation to maintain our system and to uphold its trustworthiness and stature. Pro bono work is a significant way in which we can do this.
Did you learn any new skills during your experience?
Yes, from both an in-court and out-of-court perspective, I learned that you need to sometimes adapt your style and strategy to the circumstances you are facing. In pro bono cases, you may find yourself in an unfamiliar jurisdiction – away from home or even just a local court in which you do not often practice. To go back to my first pro bono experiences, Alabama courts can be different than New York courts, and you need to be sensitive to those issues in order to get the best result for your client.
This could mean moderating or adjusting how you present your case in court by being more or less aggressive, for just one example. This is one of the reasons why I think pro bono is such a terrific training ground for junior lawyers who are still trying to figure out how to approach each matter strategically. And for more senior lawyers, I think it is a good reminder that one size doesn’t fit all in the way we approach the work we do for all of our clients.
Learn more about pro bono at White & Case.
Once again we wish to thank all of the volunteers that continue to make our mission of increasing access to justice a reality. Come back each day this week to view the next Volunteer Profile spotlight!
Interested in volunteering? Check out our “Volunteer Tools” page to learn about the range of resources we have at Pro Bono Net to help mobilize and engage pro bono volunteers, or start searching for opportunities right now by using our national Pro Bono Opportunities Guide!