Ropes & Gray Deepens Commitment to Prison Reform and Other Pro Bono Initiatives

In The News
July 1, 2015

Global law firm Ropes & Gray announced on July 1 that it will fund public service projects with a New York focus, using fees awarded the firm in the class action lawsuit challenging the unconstitutional use of excessive force against inmates of New York City’s jails on Rikers Island.

Ropes & Gray will fund a high-level counsel position and other initiatives at The Legal Aid Society of New York, create a fellowship at Equal Justice Works in New York and dedicate funds to pro bono initiatives at the firm.

The lawsuit, Nunez v. City of New York, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. On July 1, the parties to the lawsuit —the class action plaintiffs, the U.S. Department of Justice and the City—sought the court’s approval of a groundbreaking agreement to institute necessary reforms intended to remedy the long-standing problem of excessive staff violence against inmates on Rikers Island.

As part of that agreement, the City has agreed to pay attorneys’ fees and expenses to plaintiffs’ counsel:  Ropes & Gray, The Legal Aid Society of New York Prisoners’ Rights Project and the law firm Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady.

Ropes & Gray lawyers worked over 30,000 hours on the case over a three-year period on a pro bono basis. The firm will use the fees to fund public service initiatives, including:

  • Establishing the Ropes & Gray Prison Reform Counsel at the Prisoners’ Rights Project. Funding the senior-level counsel position will allow the Prisoners’ Rights Project to help ensure the City’s compliance with the Rikers Island agreement over its lifetime, and to fund its other public service projects.
  • Contributing funds to The Legal Aid Society of New York to help that organization with its many and varied public service projects that help New Yorkers.
  • Funding an ongoing Ropes & Gray Fellowship in New York through Equal Justice Works, a public interest law program, for 10 years.
  • Financing expenses— which do not include cost of lawyers’ time—the firm incurred over the years its lawyers and other professionals worked on the Rikers Island case. Those include expert fees and expenses, the costs to set up a discovery database, expenses involved in taking depositions, and other case-related costs.
  • Dedicating the remaining fees to a special fund at Ropes & Gray, separate from the firm’s general budget, to be used exclusively for future pro bono expenses.

“We are proud of the work of our team of lawyers and other professionals on the Rikers Island case, which led to a landmark agreement to enact much-needed reform measures,” said David Chapin, managing partner of Ropes & Gray. “It is all the more gratifying to put the attorney fees to good use to help ensure that the reform measures become reality and that other worthy public service projects can move forward.”

“Our protocol is that any fees awarded to Ropes & Gray for its work on pro bono matters are used only for pro bono purposes —either at public service organizations or at the firm,” said Mr. Chapin.

“I couldn’t be more thrilled that Ropes & Gray has decided to partner with Equal Justice Works to support fellowships for high-caliber recent law graduates to work on prison reform issues,” said David Stern, executive director, Equal Justice Works. “It is fabulous and fitting that the firm is dedicating fees from the Riker's Island prison litigation to support new lawyers who will work on prisoners' rights and prison reform.  Ropes & Gray recognizes that achieving equal justice in our society requires both pro bono assistance by the firm's own attorneys, and providing financial support for full time dedicated advocates.”

The New York-based Ropes & Gray team has been led by business & securities litigation partner Bill Sussman and government enforcement partner Chris Conniff.