Legal Nonprofit Pushes Law Firms to Engage in Pro Bono Work in Mexico

A legal nonprofit established nearly 30 years ago in the U.S. to provide legal services pro bono is growing increasingly active in Mexico, where access to justice can be elusive and the culture of pro bono legal work has not taken root as it has in the U.S. and U.K.

“We need to show [Mexican law firms] that pro bono work is key to closing the gap in inequities,” says Maru Cortazar, executive director of The Appleseed Network in Mexico. “We need to show them the benefits and the social responsibility of law firms.”

Members of the Appleseed Mexico network, which includes lawyers from global law firms such as Holland & Knight, Greenberg Traurig, DLA Piper and Hogan Lovells, dedicate time to helping nongovernmental organizations navigate the country’s complex legal framework. 

According to the World Justice Project, everyday legal problems are ubiquitous in Mexico, yet few Mexicans turn to lawyers or courts to resolve their problems.

Four years ago, the Appleseed Mexico network had just 38 affiliate members. Today, it includes 72 law firms and corporate counsel. The extraordinary increase in participants demonstrates that a growing number of Mexican lawyers recognize the need for their services and the satisfaction that comes from volunteering their time, Cortazar said. 

Gabriela Alaña, a real estate partner at DLA Piper who coordinates her firm’s pro bono work in Mexico, told International that DLA Piper lawyers put in 900 pro bono hours in Mexico last year. 

“This pro bono work means a lot to me personally, because I have grown as a lawyer and as a human being,” said Alaña, who is also a board member at Appleseed. 

At one free workshop, where she and other lawyers were giving legal advice to a low-income community on real estate matters, she remembers discovering that the property owners were totally unaware of their rights. 

“That made me realize there’s so much I can do, and also made me feel so grateful for everything that I have,” she said, noting that it is all too easy to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others when you’re comfortable.

Lawyers, she said, have a responsibility to give some of their time to those less fortunate.

Planting the Seed

DLA Piper traces its connection with Appleseed back to the organization’s founding in 1993, when a group of Harvard Law School alumni set out to tackle systemic problems in the U.S. legal system via nonprofit law centers.

One of those founders was Philip Zeidman, a longtime partner at DLA Piper in Washington, D.C., now retired. Another was Robert Herzstein, who was lead counsel to Mexico in negotiations for the North American Free Trade Agreement. Herzstein passed away in 2015.

Appleseed’s Mexican branch owes its existence to Herzstein, Cortazar said. 

According to the organization, more than 7,000 people have attended Appleseed webinars so far in Mexico this year, while network members have provided assistance in more than 200 specific cases.

In addition to its workshops and webinars, the organization conducts an outreach effort to create interest in pro bono work through a series of electives taught at the Universidad Panamericana, a top law school in Mexico City. That effort is spearheaded by Appleseed and DLA Piper. 

Courses taught in the past include “Introduction to pro bono practice” by DLA Piper’s first full-time pro bono partner, Lisa Dewey, who is based in Washington, D.C.

Dewey said most of her firm’s pro bono efforts in Mexico have been in coordination with Appleseed, starting with visits to local law firms to make a business case for pro bono work and to detail how DLA Piper established its own program.

Since she began working with Appleseed Mexico in 2008, Dewey said she has witnessed a “big shift” in perceptions about pro bono work in the country. Increasingly, she said, Mexican lawyers seem to realize that providing access to justice to those who otherwise don’t have it can make them feel more connected to the broader community and provide an opportunity to develop professionally. 

“Strengthening civil society and doing what we can to strengthen the capacity of NGOs is really important,” Dewey said.

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