Ted Howard is a Washington Lawyers’ Committee Board Member, former WLC Co-Chair, and recipient of our Wiley A. Branton Award for his deep commitment to equal justice and civil rights. He is also Pro Bono Partner at Wiley Rein LLP and one of the nicest people you will ever meet. Ted spoke with us about how junior lawyers can make pro bono a part of their everyday practice, how his oral argument led to a landmark settlement for 1200 women prisoners who were receiving unconstitutionally inadequate medical care, and how he cherishes the quiet sunrise over the Capitol every week.
After a career as a litigator and specialist in insurance coverage matters, you are now Wiley Rein’s first full-time Pro Bono Partner. What advice would you give to young lawyers at firms who want to develop their pro bono practice?
I think the main advice I would offer junior lawyers in private practice with a pro bono commitment is to “dive right in” and not to hesitate to get involved. When I was in my first few years of practice, back in the dark ages, I was very hesitant to take on significant responsibilities in the representation of pro bono clients because of my fear that if I messed anything up in one of their cases, they might be left in an even worse position than when I agreed to help them. It took me a lot longer than it should have to get beyond that trepidation. Looking back on it with the benefit of years of experience, I now know that passion and commitment to the pro bono client’s cause and interests are as important as substantive knowledge and expertise, which can be learned, and that even in the most complex, challenging matters, a pro bono client will almost invariably be better off having the representation of a lawyer, of whatever age, that has good basic common sense and sound professional judgment, than he or she will be struggling to represent themselves.
The other piece of advice I would offer is to make pro bono work a routine element of everyday practice to the greatest extent possible. If you take on a pro bono matter and slot it into your ongoing docket of cases or matters in which you are working on behalf of paying clients rather than approaching it as if it is something that can or should be done “on the side,” and if you treat and prioritize the obligations and deadlines associated with the pro bono matter the same way as your other obligations and deadlines, you will accomplish at least two important objectives: (i) within a short period of time, you will come to understand that maintaining a steady commitment to pro bono work is doable, because the way in which you practice on a day-to-day basis incorporates your pro bono work as part of your regular routine; and (ii) you will convey to your colleagues and supervisors that your pro bono commitment is sufficiently important that you have made it a priority to structure your docket in such a way that all of your responsibilities can and will be met and that neither the quantity nor the quality of your work need suffer just because you happen to be engaged in pro bono matters.
Can you share a story from one of your Washington Lawyers’ Committee cases?
I have had the good fortune to work on a number of challenging, impactful cases with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee over the years. Maybe my favorite personal moment in those cases came in Scott v. Clarke, our case involving the representation of the population of women prisoners residing at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, a Virginia Department of Corrections facility in which the medical care, provided by a private, for-profit contractor, was so deficient in quantity and quality as to violate the “cruel and unusual punishment” clause of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
We brought the case, in collaboration with the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia in July 2012. By the Fall of 2014, extensive discovery had been conducted and the parties had briefed cross-motions for summary judgment. Our attempts to engage the Department of Corrections in settlement discussions had gone nowhere; the lawyers from the Attorney General’s Office representing the State would not give us the time of day, even though we felt we had made a very strong record that constitutionally-deficient care at the prison was the norm and felt good about our prospects at trial.
The day of the oral argument on the summary judgment motions, which I presented on behalf of the Plaintiffs, the Deputy Attorney General for Public Safety, a political appointee, drove over to Charlottesville from Richmond and slipped into the back of the courtroom just as the hearing was beginning and observed the proceedings. Apparently the argument made quite an impression, because as she was driving back to Richmond after the hearing, she called the LAJC’s Executive Director on her cellphone to compliment my presentation and to inquire about how soon the parties could meet to talk settlement. Our first and only settlement meeting, about two weeks later, resulted in an agreement in principle that essentially gave the Plaintiffs all the relief to which they would have been entitled if we had tried the case and won.
So that is a very nice memory, although I should add that coming up on three years later, we continue to fight with the State over the fulfillment of its obligation to meet all the commitments to which it agreed in the Settlement Agreement, so even after you think you have won, it seems like the work is never done.
When you’re not practicing law, what do you like to do around DC?
Although my aging joints and aching muscles make it an ongoing challenge, I am an avid runner and I cherish my twice-weekly early morning runs on the Mall and along the River. Even after many years, there is something very inspirational about the quiet and seeing the sun come over the horizon and cast its gentle light on the Capitol, the Tidal Basin and the monuments. Amid the chaos of day-to-day legal practice and the churning political environment, it is a nice reminder of how fortunate we are to live and work in such a beautiful city.