James F. Hermon, a member of Dykema Gossett PLLC’s Labor & Employment practice group, is always looking for ways to contribute his professional expertise to charitable organizations. To celebrate National Pro Bono Week, Hermon shares how his pro bono litigation has positively impacted students with special needs and their families.
What is your role in supporting Pro Bono efforts at your firm?
My involvement is primarily in doing the work on matters that our Pro Bono Coordinator, Heidi Naasko, identifies as a need in the community. I am lucky to work in an area (Labor and Employment law) that is an area of need for many charitable organizations, and as a result, often work on issues that are familiar to me as a result of my work with regular clients, but is directly applicable in the pro bono arena.
Why is this work important in law?
This profession has provided me a comfortable living doing something that I greatly enjoy. It is a privilege to be able to practice law, and it is a privilege that is not afforded to everyone. In return for that privilege, all attorneys have a responsibility to perform work for the public good. That responsibility is embodied in the ethical rules that govern all attorneys but is a moral responsibility as well. Not everyone can effectively advise a nonprofit company on its rights and obligations, and not everyone can represent an indigent litigant to ensure that their rights are being protected. Only those who have the privilege to practice law can do that, and we have an obligation to do it in return for the privilege of being able to practice law.
What’s the case you are most proud of?
Several years ago we were approached by the ACLU to serve as cooperating counsel to represent the family of a little girl with cerebral palsy who was refused access to an elementary school with her helper dog. The ACLU had tried to negotiate a solution with the school district but was not able to resolve the matter, and they needed a firm to step in to file suit. I got involved along with several other attorneys in our firm to file suit under the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act alleging that the school’s refusal to permit the dog access was a violation of the school’s duty to accommodate disabilities in places of public accommodation. The district court dismissed the original case, finding that administrative requirements of the IDEA (another statute involved in public school disability cases) had not been fulfilled. We took the case to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, where the district court’s opinion was affirmed in a 2-1 decision, and then with the support of other attorneys in the disability rights community appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Last February, the Supreme Court entered an opinion that clarified the interplay between the ADA and the IDEA, providing an important roadmap for families who are facing similar issues. While our case goes on (we were remanded to the trial court), the change in the law that resulted from this litigation is something I am certainly proud of.
What advice would you give to an attorney who is looking champion pro bono efforts at their firm?
Aside from being the right thing to do, these pro bono cases provide incredible opportunities for young attorneys to interact with the Court in a meaningful way, as well as to have client contact on matters that are incredibly important to the clients being served. For me, working on a pro bono case meant that I had the opportunity to appear in the Supreme Court – that’s something that I would have been very unlikely to otherwise do. Other attorneys in our firm have gotten first chair trial experience at an early point in their careers working on pro bono cases. There is a benefit for the law firms and the lawyers working on this case in terms of professional development. And, besides, it’s just the right thing to do.