Cultivating Meaningful DE&I: The Positive Impact of Pro Bono
In this episode of On Record PR, we go on record with Thomas McHugh, an associate and a member of the firm’s diversity, equity, and inclusion committee.
More About Thomas McHugh
Thomas is an associate in the Securities and Litigation practice groups at Bressler, Amery & Ross (Bressler). An alumnus of the Bressler summer law clerk program, Thomas joined the firm upon receiving his J.D. from the University of Notre Dame Law School.
While at Notre Dame, Thomas was a member of the 7th Circuit Moot Court Team. As part of the team, Thomas briefed and argued a habeas petition before the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago. Thomas also served as the Symposium Editor for the Journal of Legislation during his final year of law school.
Thomas is joining us today to talk about the pro bono work of the firm and its positive impact on relationship development within the firm.
Caitlan McCafferty: Welcome Thomas.
Thomas McHugh: Thanks so much for having me
Caitlan McCafferty: Today we’re going to talk about your journey at Bressler and the firm’s approach to diversity and inclusion (D&I) and pro bono.
Could you describe the firm’s D&I committee and the initiatives they lead at the firm?
Absolutely. At Bressler, we have a diversity and inclusion committee, which primarily supports all of the firm’s diversity initiatives. It’s comprised of 12 different members, and it’s been a mix of both principals and associates at the firm. Most importantly, for the purposes of this committee, it’s comprised of team members from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and genders to represent different interests at the firm and make sure that we’re focusing our efforts to encompass and include everyone. The committee develops and supports all of the firm’s diversity initiatives, tactics, and programs, and oversees efforts to fulfill our commitment to diversity and inclusion. One thing that they complement the D&I committee is to encourage all of our attorneys at the firm to participate in diverse professional and legal associations.
I can speak for myself. I’ve been a member of the National and Local chapters of the LGBTQ+ Bar for all of the years that I’ve been at Bressler. It’s something that’s encouraged by not only the D&I committee, but by the firm. I think it helps to make folks feel like they want to not only get involved and become members of the respective interest bar associations, but to take a committee position and invest in the initiatives of the broader bar associations, the community as a whole, and become active participants in the practice in that way.
Tell us more about the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund and how the firm works with that organization.
This is our newest addition to the firm’s pro bono repertoire. We have, in the past, partnered with different non-for-profit organizations to provide different pro bono services to various clients. Those have included Habitat for Humanity, the ABA Military Pro Bono Project, and Volunteer Lawyers for Justice. The Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund (TLDEF) is our newest such partnership. Essentially, in 2020, the firm made a decision – a combined effort between our pro bono committee and the diversity and inclusion committee – to seek out more diverse clientele to provide pro bono services to. The committees took a call for suggestions of different groups to partner with and, I am pretty proud that this was my own suggestion. I’m pretty happy they wound up selecting it. Essentially what we wanted to do was make sure that the pro bono opportunities we were offering to our attorneys reflected the kind of values of the organization. In considering TLDEF as a potential partner, we wanted to make sure that this was going to achieve and further those goals that the firm has. I think too, we’ve been at it for almost a year now, it’s going quite well.
Caitlan McCafferty: That’s awesome. I’m familiar with TLDEF and they do amazing work. They really help the transgender community. Let’s zoom out to 30,000 feet.
Why is pro bono important to the legal profession?
I think what our pro bono initiatives are meant to do is to demonstrate a commitment to taking action and putting into practice the values that you as an organization espouse. It relates back to our D&I committee’s mission to state the values of our firms. We want to go beyond just sort of a statement of interest or specialty recognition of a month or a time period, but rather commit in very tangible ways, the private practice of law. That means time, right? Billable hours towards the things that we say that the values that we espouse as a firm. So, I think pro bono is important because it allows firms to take that initiative, to show “put your money where your mouth is” in a way. There’s a common thread underpinning of the petitions that we do for TLDEF, which is that the clients want to have a legally recognized name change so that their name is consistent with their identity and appearance. I think that’s sort of a nice way of thinking about what we do in terms of our pro bono efforts is to make sure that there’s a consistency between what the firm is saying its values are and then the actions that we’re taking to demonstrate those values.
Could you tell our listeners why access to identity documents that correctly match a person’s name and gender are so important?
Absolutely. It’s really fundamental to our daily lives. Think of all of the ways in which your identity documents impact your life, you may use them for something small, like getting on an airplane, applying for a loan, or large life events – getting married, adopting a child, or having a child. What we’re looking for when we represent these clients and what we’re seeking to achieve on behalf of our clients is a congruency between the identity presented on the document and who this person really is in the real world. You can imagine that it’s not just and minor inconvenience or the social and psychological stigma of walking up and having an agenda, an identity document that does not match your presentation of self. There are also real tangible effects, I think as well, it’s a safety concern. It’s a concern that you may not actually be permitted on the plane or your loan might not be approved because of this. So, for folks who don’t have that sort of congruity between the identity of documents and how they present in real life, it may seem sort of foreign, but this is a small, small part of our client’s lives that we can hopefully make a lot easier by getting those things to align against and make sure that the documents that they possess reflect who they really are and how they present in their day-to-day lives.
Caitlan McCafferty: We talked about some of these issues during our Pride Month series on our podcast, but I just want to reiterate just as I have had a similar conversation in the past, I think when people are up against that challenge, we don’t think about it all the time.
I was thinking to myself, while you were talking, I had a friend visit me at my high rise in the city and she lost her ID. That’s not that big of a deal. I went down and met her, but if my friend who’s trans came to the building and presented their ID, it might be a different conversation. I really appreciate this organization’s work because they make trans people feel safer. That’s the goal, right?
Thomas McHugh: Yes, exactly. I think it is like you’re mentioning, a concern for something that might seem to many of us as something minor or not something we put a lot of energy or thought into. But it can really be all-encompassing and very challenging to our clients to have to constantly interact with the world in this way. So, our role is hopefully to alleviate that concern. When you have that congruency between your identity documents and how you present, I think it helps you to navigate the world with confidence. It reduces that danger aspect to it. Then, hopefully, in a broader sense, gives them a sense that their identity is valid and recognized and not something that they have to be worried about presenting a document that counteracts it in some way.
For additional Pride Month Resources:
Are there any client stories that stand out to you with this work?
I’ve had some extremely positive experiences working with clients in partnership with TLDEF. I would say one that sticks out is probably my first client. It was a young woman in the New York City area who was seeking to have her gender identity changed on these documents. We sought a petition for legal recognition of her name change. She was so, so excited to have this happen; very enthusiastic. I remember taking an initial call to request some documents and make an introduction. I think maybe 30 minutes after the call, I received a message in my inbox from her with all the documents I asked for plus a bunch more that I probably didn’t need or ask for. She was just very enthusiastic about it. Not only were we able to successfully secure that name change, which is obviously great, but also matched the enthusiasm that our attorneys bring to these projects, which I think ties back to the idea of pro bono service in general and what our firm strives to do.
The attorneys that participate in the TLDEF partnership at Bressler have volunteered to do so. They’ve expressed an interest in doing this kind of work. When you match up nicely with clients who are similarly motivated to get this done… I was impressed with how quickly we were able to get it through. And this was during 2020. This is a pandemic shutdown case, which meant things that could have previously have been done in person with a quick meeting, were now done by sending snail mail back and forth. We would do virtual notarization where you’d have to provide the documents and get the notary on a video and have them authenticate the signature virtually. This presented some small challenges along the way. But it’s a case that I’m particularly proud of and I am glad that we could get a successful outcome for that client.
How did the attorneys at Bressler work together to make name changes happen for TLDEF clients? Do you work across practices or across offices?
We do. This is a firm collaborative effort that ties back to what I was speaking about before… how this program came into being was with a joint partnership between our pro bono committee and the diversity and inclusion committee. We’ve continued that throughout the last year as we’ve rolled out these cases. We took on an initial batch of about a half dozen and had a whole bunch of attorneys attend a training in partnership with TLDEF to give them the background on these cases, inform them of the layout of the land legally speaking, what they’d need to do to effectuate a name change.
Once everybody had received the training, we made a decision to tackle those first six cases in pairs. We assigned two attorneys to each matter. That gave us a unique opportunity to present cross-practice practice and cross-office partnerships. We made an effort to pair people who maybe previously hadn’t had the opportunity to work with one another before. I think that’s renounced to the benefit, not only of the client who received another lawyer to take care of their case and read things over, but also for the firm to encourage practicing across practice groups and meeting more people in the firm. In particular, I think it gave a great opportunity for our younger associates to work with more experienced attorneys. We had originally, as I mentioned, took on a batch of these cases right around when first-years were starting at the firm. I had two first years who were excited and wanted to get in involved in the process, but were not yet admitted to the bar – they were pending bar results. It was a good opportunity to get them involved. They could work with somebody who was admitted and therefore file the paperwork. It also presented some of our absolute all-star combos. I have one partnership of pretty much the youngest associate in our New York office paired with one of the most senior partners in the office. They are my superstar team. They finished their initial client’s applications successfully first. They’ve taken on subsequent ones since then. They’re absolutely killing it the TLDEF clients. I’m really proud of that partnership. I think it stems from this effort to get people involved, to ensure that folks are crossing typical practice area and office boundaries when we handle these cases.
Caitlan McCafferty: That speaks to a lot of the D&E community’s mission to diversify your experience and diversify the viewpoints. The clients are all the better for it.
Thomas McHugh: Exactly. Yes.
Do you have any advice for young lawyers that are interested in pro bono work?
I would say 100% jump right in. Like I was describing with some of our first years: it’s not something you need to be bashful about. If it is something your firm offers, pro bono initiatives that are of interest to you, find out who’s the person in charge of that project and see what you can do to help. We’ve had first-year associates and summer associates chip in on these cases and I think it’s great legal experience. It’s a great opportunity, oftentimes, to get into court for the first time as a young associate. It’s also nice to have a change of pace. When cases are 100% yours to manage. A lot of times in law firms, you are working towards a larger goal, perhaps on a larger team where your responsibility, isn’t quite as all-encompassing as taking on a case that is wholly your own. I think, again, that’s an instance where the benefits are twofold: there’s to the individual, and particularly a younger attorney, who has the opportunity to take the reins on their case and feel like they are really in charge of the decisions that are made and what you’re going to do for that client, but then also for management to see how their associates manage cases, case responsibility when it’s there as alone. When they have full ownership of it.
How do summer law clerks fit into this scenario?
It is another instance where TLDEF has been a great partnership for our firm because the cases are well-suited to anyone who’s interested in helping. It’s not a minor thing for our clients, but in terms of time commitment and what has to actually get filed, these are fairly straightforward matters. We’ve been able to partner with our summer law clerks and first-year associates, young folks, right out of law school, in addition to hopefully going forward to involve outside counsel in pro bono efforts. Partnerships abound for these cases. We look forward to continuing to partner with all sorts of folks, anybody who wants to chip in. It is an all-hands-on-deck to make these happen for our clients.
Caitlan McCafferty: Thank you so much for joining me today. If people wanted to learn more about you, where’s the best place to look?
Thomas McHugh: Absolutely. I’m on LinkedIn under my full name, Thomas McHugh, or all of my contact information can be found on my Bressler bio at bressler.com.
Learn More & Connect
Learn more about Thomas McHugh
Bressler Amery & Ross
Diversity & Inclusion: https://www.bressler.com/about-diversity-commitment
Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund
Name Change Project: https://transgenderlegal.org/our-work/name-change-project/
Learn more about Caitlan McCafferty
Listen to more episodes of On Record PR
For DE&I resources, please visit our Diversity, Inclusion, Equity & Anti-Racism Resource Center.