An Interview with Brenna DeVaney
Conducted by Yukiko Kobayashi-Lui
The Law Firm Antiracism Alliance was founded in June 2020 in response to a blossoming national movement tackling issues of racism and racial injustice. The Alliance connects pro bono lawyers around the United States with legal service organizations and initiatives focusing on racial justice and the law in order to create structural change. All of PILnet’s law firm partners are members of the Alliance. This interview was conducted in August 2020 with Brenna DeVaney, Director of Pro Bono Programs at Skadden, Arps, Meagher & Flom. Skadden is a member of the Alliance.
What is the Law Firm Antiracism Alliance (LFAA) and where does it sit in the history of pro bono efforts to fight racism?
The LFAA’s purpose is to leverage the resources of the private bar in partnership with legal services organizations (LSOs) and race equity advocates to amplify the voices of communities and individuals oppressed by racism, to better use the law as a vehicle for change that benefits communities of color, and to promote racial equity in the law. More than 260 law firms have committed to being part of this Alliance.
Through their pro bono programs and in partnership with LSOs and racial justice organizations, law firms have long been committed to doing pro bono work that addresses the manifestations of racism in individuals’ lives. As that work continues full steam ahead, the LFAA will bring the power of connectivity between firms, LSOs, and racial equity advocates to the ongoing effort to address the root causes of systemic racism.
What is your, Skadden’s and APBCo’s role in the LFAA? Why did you undertake this initiative? Why do you think this work is so important for law firms?
Skadden is a member firm of the LFAA. The Association of Pro Bono Counsel (APBCo) played a critical role as the forum that brought together pro bono counsel to collaborate on creating a bigger initiative to address root causes of racial injustice. That collaboration involved parallel conversations with the managing partners and chairs of law firms — all leading to a moment where the LFAA was formed.
Racism is codified into our judicial system, both in clearly racist ways and in facially neutral ways. To create change in how our judicial system works, lawyers need to play a part. We plan to use every tool that lawyers have in their toolboxes, which can include affirmative litigation, but also includes helping to draft model legislation and negotiating with policy makers.
What are the LFAA summits? What do they aim to achieve? How do you hope to sustain engagement in the summits and the LFAA’s work generally?
LFAA’s first summit was held virtually in July. It focused on two things: providing a foundation in understanding what systemic racism is and confirming that every member firm is prepared to do anti-racist work.
On the first day of the summit, practitioners from the Shriver Center’s Racial Justice Institute generously shared their expertise and led key presentations and trainings. On the second day of the summit, experts from LSOs focused on race equity explained forward-looking strategies, ways to organize our efforts, proper structures for the LFAA, and how to best approach this work with humility. We had 500 participants, including pro bono counsel, diversity and inclusion professionals, and law firm leaders. We are planning a fall summit that will include a wide range of experts. In addition, we hope to begin creating workstreams to divide and tackle areas with substantive issues such as housing, health care, public benefits and taxes, among other areas.
By creating this community, we can harness the energy and willingness to do this anti-racism work. Any time you create community around an issue, you’re able to sustain momentum. The LFAA represents a long-term initiative, which will take years of coordinated work. This is a movement, not a moment.
Some people might be skeptical that Big Law can have an impact on systemic racism? What would you say to those critics?
The LFAA was designed to work in partnership with LSOs and racial justice advocates to promote a practice to listen before we act, and to be guided by experts, and communities and individuals who have been harmed by racism. Our hope is that the LFAA will bring the resources of the private bar to join forces with the work that is already being done and will tackle issues in partnership with experts in the field.
How can pro bono lawyering itself incorporate anti-racist principles?
Understanding what it means to be anti-racist and to do anti-racism work is critically important to LFAA efforts, and more generally for pro bono work, particularly in this moment of racial reckoning.
I would encourage all lawyers doing pro bono work to utilize resources available through racial justice organizations such as the Shriver Center to gain a deeper understanding of anti-racism and how we can approach this critical work in ways that will be most successful. We hope that the pro bono work that the LFAA facilitates will be prioritized and guided by people of color and communities that have been negatively affected by racism.
In the future, do you envision the LFAA and pro bono lawyers contributing to systemic anti-racism efforts?
Yes, absolutely. The work that needs to be done to address systemic racism is going to take years of commitment. The LFAA and the pro bono lawyers who are part of the LFAA effort are ready to take on this commitment through impact litigation, policy development, and advocacy efforts.
Are there ways in which the partnerships between law firms and community legal service organizations can be improved?
The LFAA is designed to add value to LSOs. We have very clearly outlined that resources should not be diverted from LSOs to the LFAA, and that everything we do should help bolster LSOs, which have long been doing racial justice work. We intend to listen to and be led by LSOs that are experts in the field, create efficiencies, and leverage our resources to grow the work that is made possible through this collaboration.
The LFAA has already received feedback about the necessity of honest conversations between LSOs and law firms related to how pro bono matters are staffed and handled, as well as the critical importance of a long-term commitment to racial justice. The relationship between LSOs and law firms will be enhanced when law firms look to add value, streamline and create efficiencies, share resources, and learn from the experts.
What is the value of law firm coalitions in the pro bono and access to justice sphere?
The LFAA is proud to have member firms in all 50 states and some international jurisdictions including the United Kingdom and Australia, along with firms of all sizes with varying expertise. By bringing together this large group of firms, we can cover more ground and efficiently tackle more issues, allowing us to bring more resources and expertise to this fight.
To learn more about the LFAA and its work:
Shriver Center on Poverty Law Racial Justice Institute
Association of Pro Bono Counsel
The Racial Justice Institute: Bringing a Race Equity Lens to Legal Services Advocacy