When President Trump signed an executive order in January preventing people from seven Muslim majority countries from entering the U.S., attorneys across the country sprang into action, racing to their local airports to sort through the legal chaos. O’Melveny & Myers attorneys were among them. “I spent the weekend of the travel ban working with lawyers all over the country to try to coordinate a response,” says David Lash, who oversees the Los Angeles-based law firm’s pro bono program. “By the end of the weekend, we had an email list of 900 lawyers.”
But even before Trump’s executive order, O’Melveny lawyers had been devoting thousands of hours to pro bono immigration efforts, all but making it a specialty of the firm. In fact, the very day Trump enacted the ban, Lash’s team was working with in-house attorneys at Warner Bros. to hold a clinic for Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), a nonprofit founded by Angelina Jolie and Microsoft in 2008 that connects undocumented children with pro bono lawyers to make sure they’re represented in immigration court. “We had 100 people on the 18th floor of our L.A. office,” says entertainment litigator Matt Kline. “In one conference room, there was a TV on, and I remember kids walking by and seeing images of what was going on in Washington, D.C. There was a lot of fear.” The attorneys sat down with the kids, often coloring to break the ice, and listened to their stories. “It was completely gut-wrenching,” says Lash. “We had 12-year-olds who saw their parents gunned down in front of them.”
So far, the firm’s SoCal offices have held three KIND clinics and put in more than 3,500 pro bono hours for KIND cases in the past year. Entertainment associates Jordyn Ostroff and Catherine Howard are representing a pair of young sisters from El Salvador in their efforts to stay in the U.S. “We’re going to try to get what’s called Special Immigrant Juveniles Status,” says Howard. “That is for children who come into the U.S. and, either because of neglect or abandonment, don’t have parents and would be threatened if they went back to their home country.”
The firm is working with KIND to set up clinics in San Francisco and New York — but that’s not the only way it’s making an impact on immigration issues. “We were recently on the briefs in the United States v. Texas case, which is an immigration case involving the challenge to the Obama policy regarding Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals [DACA],” says partner Brian Berliner. “We’re also involved in drafting legislation. Our work runs the gamut of small clients all the way up to classes of clients.”
Lash says the firm is seeing double the amount of pro bono activity it did by this time last year, and he expects that to continue. “We see heightened volume, and we see many new issues arising,” he says. “There are proposals in Congress to limit the Special Immigrant Juveniles Status statute. We’re going to be ready for that.” With so much work to be done, Kline says he’s confident O’Melveny won’t have trouble finding attorneys willing to donate their talents and time. “There’s a different level of fear, and the fear is really tangible,” he says. “The flip side of all of that is there’s a ton of energy, and there’s a ton of commitment, and there’s a ton of awareness that wasn’t there before.”
This story first appeared in the April 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.