Law firms’ helping hand in a migration crisis

Plight of refugees in Europe has driven creative, invaluable pro-bono work, while policy changes have tested lawyers’ skills

From emotional trauma to poor living conditions, the difficulties experienced by migrants and refugees arriving in Europe are immense. On top of those comes the uncertainty over immigration status.

This is where lawyers are stepping in to help organisations that support refugees. While the firms benefit from exposure to new legal issues and giving junior staff valuable experience, the plight of Europe’s refugees has proved to be a powerful driver of lawyers’ pro-bono efforts.

For the International Rescue Committee (IRC), the humanitarian aid organisation, a priority has been to make sense of and stay up to date with the many legal frameworks and policies that are being rapidly introduced across Europe.

Ahead of a March 2016 meeting between EU leaders and Turkey to discuss co-operation on the refugee crisis, the IRC needed analysis of issues such as border control, asylum, resettlement and relocation to lobby effectively.

“[The IRC] are not lawyers but they are aware of the legal implications of policy decisions for the things happening on the ground,” says Kerry Stares, head of legal at TrustLaw, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s global pro-bono service, which connects lawyers and non-governmental organisations. “That seemed a good opportunity to find pro-bono lawyers to help them.”

After putting the work out to tender, TrustLaw chose Latham & Watkins because of its global network of offices and the many languages and jurisdictional qualifications of its lawyers. Latham then selected more than 30 lawyers from six offices, as well as external advisers, to work on the project.

For Latham, the engagement’s timeframe — ultimately producing more than 300 pages of research on the rights of Syrian refugees in just over a week — was new. “The novelty of the way in which the project worked was its real-time urgency,” says Helena Potts, a partner in the firm’s London office.

Latham’s work on the research also had a further impact on refugees by increasing the IRC’s ability to protect human rights without being distracted from its day-to-day aid work at Europe’s borders and its advocacy efforts in Brussels.

The engagement did not end with the signing of the EU-Turkey deal. “It contained much that the IRC and others hadn’t advocated for,” says Ms Stares. “But rather than throw up our hands, we looked at the IRC’s next priorities.”

According to Ms Potts, the ongoing nature of the engagement will influence Latham’s approach to pro-bono work. She says: “Pro bono is sometimes seen as a dip in and out,” she says. “Managing it in this way will change the way we work with TrustLaw and the way internally we manage some of our pro-bono projects.”

In Portugal, the refugee crisis gave rise to a different type of legal support in the form of a governance platform — PAR, the Refugee Support Platform — which allows aid organisations to work together without losing autonomy.

“It was a spontaneous movement but needed legal support so that it could be structured in a professional way,” says Margarida Olazabal Cabral, a partner at Portuguese law firm Morais Leitão, Galvão Teles, Soares da Silva & Associados (MLGTS). The firm is a member of PAR’s executive committee and co-ordinates the law firms providing support for refugees.

The aim of PAR member organisations is to increase public understanding of the refugees, provide on-the-ground support in Greece and work with governments to co-ordinate the placement of refugee families. “In schools we had a programme called If It Was Me, asking children what, if they were a refugee, they would pack in their bag,” says Ms Cabral. The aim was to create empathy among the children, who responded with suggestions such as “I have a cuddly toy which is what brings me the comfort of my childhood and my home” or “I brought a blanket, a book, photographs, mobile phone, biscuits, toothpaste, toothbrush.”

Ms Cabral says law firms have an important role to play in addressing Europe’s refugee crisis: “It’s a complex problem — and lawyers are used to dealing with complex problems.”

Another firm has taken a different approach to supporting organisations in the field of human rights and immigration. Arthur Cox, the Irish firm, seconds staff to an independent law centre on a pro-bono basis.

The Immigrant Council of Ireland provides free assistance and legal representation to people regarding their immigration status. It also works to change Irish legislation on human rights issues.

So far, five Arthur Cox staff have been seconded to the council, each for between three and six months. One campaign that they helped the council with was Turn off the Red Light, which worked with survivors of prostitution and sex trafficking to push for legislative changes.

While Latham & Watkins and MLGTS have taken different approaches to pro-bono work on migration, the Arthur Cox programme has something in common with each of them: it allows for a deeper engagement than one-off projects permit.

“We build up a body of knowledge within the firm, so there’s a continuity between ourselves and the Immigrant Council,” says Conor McDonnell, a partner at Arthur Cox.

Not only have the lawyers from Arthur Cox helped the council to expand its services to immigrants and its capacity to engage in policy work, but they have gained valuable experience themselves from the programme. The staff on secondment have generally been trainees at the pre-qualification stage.

The programme is popular with these employees, says Mr McDonnell. “This is an area that graduates are interested in and they expect the firm to have a facility that allows them to contribute,” he says.

For Ms Cabral, pro-bono engagements are increasingly important as the industry vies for talent. “At a moment when legal services are very competitive, it’s important to give people experience of this other side of the legal profession,” she says.

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