How an Am Law 200 Firm is Working Towards Solutions to 2020’s Challenges with Jeremy Sacks, Pro Bono Committee Chair of Stoel Rives
In this episode of On Record PR, Caitlan McCafferty goes on record with Jeremy Sacks, a partner in Stoel Rives’ Litigation Practice Group and chair of the firm’s Pro Bono Committee. His practice focuses on complex litigation in a variety of businesses, including the automotive retail, energy and health care industries. As Pro Bono Chair, Jeremy has overseen the establishment of the firm’s signature Main Street Relief initiative, designed to provide no-cost legal support to businesses affected by the pandemic. In addition, Stoel Rives was one of the earliest firms to sign onto the Law Firm Anti-racism Alliance, combining the pro bono resources of more than 150 major law firms to combat systemic racism.
This episode was recorded during the coronavirus pandemic, and many of us are working from home.
Before we dive into our discussion about the pro bono work, we’re still living in a COVID-19 world. Tell us what your day-to-day is like.
You’re looking at it here in my basement lair. Covid is awful for everybody, because no one is really leaving, at least we’re not leaving the house much in Portland. The dogs are very happy. I mean, we have this theory that the dogs are behind all of this actually because there are people around all the time. I’m just kind of working in the basement and, in some ways we’re really just much more efficient and it’s fine. I didn’t think it was going to work very well working from home. And it really has, I think, for people like me, it’s fine. I think if I were a younger lawyer and kind of learning the ropes, it would be more difficult, but, so far so good. I’m really surprised at how well it has worked. I do miss the office and I miss seeing people in real life and being able to walk down the hall and knock on someone’s door, but it’s not as bad as I thought it would be. But, when you get bored, you can walk out into the garden, which is kind of nice or when you just want a break or something. I kind of like that.
In the interest of full disclosure for our listeners, Stoel has been a client for many years, and we’ve worked with you to launch the Main Street Relief Project. For our listeners, can you describe what the project is?
It’s called Main Street Relief. And the idea was that during COVID, and this was initially back in April when things first hit and got bad, the businesses that make up the fabric of our communities really needed help, particularly small businesses, and nobody knew what was happening with SBA loans. The idea was we would like to help the businesses who really need help to stay afloat and the people who work at those businesses. And we realized that this wasn’t traditional pro bono. They’re not entities or individuals that are hovering around the poverty line. This isn’t really a public interest issue, but it’s a community interest issue. So, we decided that we would try to help local restaurants and small retail businesses that were not owned by private equity or, you know, large investors or large corporations and we try to help them in whatever way we could. We’re treating it like it’s a pro bono project and people will get pro bono credit for working on this stuff. I’m really proud of it. I think it’s worked, from our perspective, it’s worked pretty well. We don’t have answers for everybody, but we’ve been able to really help a lot of businesses particularly in Portland and Seattle, which is nice.
What kind of legal issues have the businesses been coming to the Project with?
Initially we were going to have four topics. One was insurance because people wanted to know what they could do about their business interruption insurance. Then, we’ve got another bucket that would be real estate landlord, tenant issues. Another is employment. What do I do with my employees? And, how do my loans affect that? How do they get money? How do I keep them out of poverty? And then the fourth was general loan issues, SBA loans, and things like that. Since establishing those four areas, there are other topics that don’t fit into those buckets. And generally, we’ll help people with those too, but we’re not doing litigation. We’re not going to do bankruptcies for people because it gets too complex and too difficult. We will do things like this. The follow-up question probably is what’s the one people need the most help with. I think is the landlord-tenant issue. People who are running into landlords who will not work with them on their lease. I don’t know how bad a problem that is in Portland generally, like landlords not being understanding, but we’ve been able to help a lot of people, which is a good thing.
Would you list the states where you have offices and are offering these services?
We’re in a number of states: Oregon, Washington, Alaska, California, Minnesota, Utah, Idaho, and the District of Columbia. We rolled it out on firm-wide basis, but the idea was that it wasn’t going to be top-down. The pro bono committee has a lead for each of the offices in each of those states. The lead person in each state would take the bull by the horns and figure out what are the needs that they have in that community, and how can we address them? For example, in Minnesota, we have an office in Minneapolis at the Minneapolis – St. Paul area. The lead there saw a need for helping businesses rebuild after George Floyd was killed. We expanded that to say to a number of individuals in the community: We’re doing this pro bono Main Street Relief thing, but this includes legal help that you’ll need to try to rebuild your businesses.
Are you seeing different issues in different areas? In Portland it might be the landlord-tenant issue. In Minneapolis, they have a unique set of circumstances. Are there any other trends?
The most demand we’ve had for Main Street Relief has been in Portland and Seattle. And I think the issues are generally similar in both places. We expanded it in Minneapolis to account for the needs of folks after the George Floyd murder. And then we opened that up in other offices as well. Portland had similar issues. A lot of people need help with insurance and certainly with landlord-tenant issues. The SBA issues have calmed down a bit since those loans. There were a lot of problems with those loans but they’re not being offered to my knowledge right now.
There’s a lot of contention over what does small business mean. And the Main Street Relief Project is specifically for small businesses, independent restaurants and retailers. Did the firm give a lot of thought to that while building the project?
I want to say it was Justice Potter Stewart, but you know it when you see it. We decided that trying to write a definition was going to be more difficult and take more time than trying to figure it out case-by-case basis. We have not had problems with having to turn anyone down because we think that they’re owned by private equity. It just hasn’t happened, which has been nice. We hoped for the best and so far, that part has worked out. We have had to turn some folks down who really needed help because we had a legal conflict. We represented somebody that they had an issue with, and we couldn’t do it. But we were able to point them in other directions too.
Have you seen a lot of impact in your community?
People have asked us for help, and I don’t think they realized that I even worked at Stoel Rives. I’ve also heard back from other people about how grateful they are for help and individual people we’ve helped have emailed me and said, “Oh, thanks so much. This is my business and it’s my life. And if I can’t get this fixed, it’s over. Right?” It is rewarding to be able to help people, this originally percolated up in a very odd way. We started out doing it with restaurants and then branched out to small retail. It was just easier to get the restaurants off the ground. Portland’s known for its restaurants and we have a lot of friends in that community and they were incredibly grateful, and we were talking to them on the side. So it’s been great. I can tell you one interesting project we’re doing, Washington and California have cocktails to go, so you can’t drink them in the car, but you can buy a cocktail and take it away and drink it at home. We do not have that in Oregon because of the way the state statutes run relating to this issue. It’s killing bars and restaurants because surprise, surprise, bars and restaurants make a lot of money on alcohol. We’ve been working with a number of folks in that community trying to find a way to deal with this issue at the state level. It has not been easy. We have not made as much progress as we would like, but it’s an interesting issue. I know that they were glad that we were helping them with it.
Caitlan McCafferty: That popped up in Pennsylvania as well and Pennsylvania has notoriously difficult liquor laws.
Jeremy Sacks: I know. Yes. You’re really pretty crazy there.
Caitlan McCafferty: When the governor came down with that, you could take away alcohol from bars. I was shocked just because of how difficult it’s been to make any movement in that space.
Jeremy Sacks: You can take away wine and beer and cider, you cannot take away hard alcohol in drinking vessels or mixed drinks. You can thank our Puritan forebears for that, and our federal system, it’s kind of nuts. Portland is on the Columbia River, right over the Columbia River is Vancouver, Washington, where they don’t have this problem. You can drive from Portland to Vancouver, pick up whatever you want to, and drive back. That’s a long way to go for a cocktail you have to drink at home, but it happens and it’s not helping the restaurants and bars in Portland.
Caitlan McCafferty: I believe that it’s definitely a tough time, especially for restaurants, and bars.
Jeremy Sacks: It’s awful and it’s going to get worse. I’m just trying to be realistic, but I just think it’s a mess. In England, the government’s paying for 50% of your restaurant or bar tab if you go out which will never happen here. I don’t think it’s a terrible idea, but I do believe all businesses could probably use that.
The Main Street Relief Project went public around May 26 and George Floyd was killed on May 25th or May 26th. It is my understanding that the launch of this project has been entangled with the George Floyd protests, which Seattle, Minneapolis and Portland where Stoel Rives has offices have been the epicenter [of the protests]. How have those things affected the pro bono efforts of the firm?
I took over this role in December or January and I’ve always done pro bono work. I did it at my prior firm when I was a young lawyer and I’ve been here for 21 years and it’s important to me. Who knew that this was going to be the pro bono year? It has dramatically affected the kind of work we’re doing and the participation that we’ve seen. One of my goals in taking over the pro bono committee was that I wanted to get more people to participate. All of these horrors that we’re living through this year have only one silver lining I can think of: for the law firm is it gets people involved and people came out of the woodwork after Minneapolis and then ongoing after that to provide help. We’ve always done work with ACLU. We’ve always done work all sorts of clinics in town, in Portland and other offices. This motivated people. I can’t tell you how many calls I’ve had with people across the spectrum of the firm from junior associates to senior partners to retired partners, all who really want to help. One thing that was important to me in the Main Street Relief Project is that the firm stand up and do it because we’re the institutional memory. We, and other firms like us in the cities like Portland, where a lot of our headquarters companies have left. We don’t have that many headquarters companies. Yes, Nike’s here. And, there are a number of other companies here too, but a lot of the home-grown companies have been bought up. Law firms to a certain degree form part of the backbone of the community, and it is important for me to see us stand up for that. It’s also important for me to have law firms like ours be able to use their privilege to help do the right thing in terms of racial justice. I was more than gratified to see that the firm completely backed us up in this and is in for a penny in, for a pound on this. That’s a really wonderful thing.
Specifically, Portland too. The federal pursuit, in that city has been, egregious and shocking to many citizens. Have you been doing any work around that?
We have, and it has been egregious. The folks listening or watching may not know, federal forces were deployed to Portland as part of a program run through the department of Homeland Security and some other agencies. The forces were used to essentially attack protesters, in about a two to four square block area downtown and to disperse the crowds. I’m sure we’ve all seen the videos. What really caused us to spring to action there? One morning, I got a text from a friend in D.C. asking, “Is this story accurate from the Post?” It was a story about a man named Chris David who was a Navy veteran. There was a video that circulated of him being clubbed and sprayed in the face when he just walked up to one of the federal police officers to ask, “Why are you disobeying your oath of office?” Because they were doing things that were unconstitutional, they just whaled on him. He ended up in the hospital with broken bones. We’re working with ACLU on that. Then there’s a number of other cases that we’re working on relating to this racial justice issue. That’s really what it’s about. It’s making certain that the government is not trampling on your constitutional rights to protest and to speak.
It is important and I’ve been really gratified and interested in big law, as an industry, stepping up to these things and making it clear that citizens deserve to know what their constitutional rights are and deserve to fight for those things. Can you talk a little bit more about the Law Firm Anti-racism Alliance?
We were one of the founding members of the Law Firm Anti-racism Alliance. It’s a group of big law firms that have gotten together to deal with systemic racism in our society. I know there are individuals who don’t understand that it exists and don’t believe it, but it does. The initial goal of the Alliance was to do a catalog of all the laws that are on the books around the country that have these racist assumptions built into them and try and get rid of them. This seemed like something that was right up our alley. It was also something we had a lot of people for. It was something that wasn’t purely a litigation pro bono project. We’re always looking for a non-litigation thing, although everyone can litigate, but some people don’t like to. There’s another project they’re working on this anti-militia project that we’re working on with a Georgetown law clinic and Mary McCord over there. That is a clinic that is putting together a toolkit to help states and individuals around the country enforce laws that are on the books that say, look, if you think you’re a militia, you cannot use police force if the police force is there. The states have banned this in many states and the majority of states, as far as I know. We have had some militia problems in this state in the past. Iit was heartening to know that these laws exist and that there’s a concerted effort to get them enforced. They exist in Wisconsin and we’ve seen in Wisconsin right now, these militia people who are going in to try to police, that’s not the way it works. It is very timely.
Caitlan McCafferty: It scares me, and I don’t live there, it scares me. I think that big law has such an influence it’s important that as an industry with Law Firm Anti-Racism Alliance that you’re all working together to make some change and I think that’s really important.
How do you juggle all these pro bono responsibilities with your usual practice of law?
It’s not easy. There’s sometimes when you’re really going to be focusing on pro bono work and there’s sometimes when you’re not. Part of my job is to manage the pro bono program. That’s another issue and that can take some time, but I’ve got great support staff at the firm. Everybody on the committee has been pitching in to do some of the management, particularly on Main Street Relief. My partner, Bethany Bacci, she’s been fantastic on dealing with the management side of this, as well as a number of other staff folks at the firm. In the last month, I’ve worked a lot on this, this case we were just talking about. I have not had time to work on a lot of my regular cases, but it’s important to the firm and, I don’t mean to sound like an old person, but things ebb and flow. There are times when you’re going to be busy on this and there’s times when you’re not, and I work at a place that understands that. At a certain point you have to do what you think is the right thing. I don’t think anyone’s going to get punished for doing this kind of stuff. It’s important. The firm’s made it clear that it’s important. The main point is that the pro bono clients are their clients too. There’s not a hierarchy of clients. You get done what you have to get done, and everyone understands that, and everybody pitches in and that’s really quite rewarding.
As we wrap up the conversation, COVID and civil rights are heavy. What have you been doing for fun?
I like to garden and the garden’s right outside the back door. I can putter around there for a little bit, but, no it’s been weird because you can’t really go anywhere. I ride my bike. I have my midlife crisis mobile; it’s an old MGB and that’s fun to drive around. I have been getting in more exercise because you’re always here and there’s no excuse. Walk the dogs. We live across the street from what’s called Forest Park here in Portland, and it’s a huge wooded park and it’s nice to be out there. I have not fished, like I wanted to, I’ve not really been able to do the things I normally do, but I did go to the mountains a couple of times. Getting out particularly in the morning and clearing your head is a great thing. Then our college-age son who was in college was back since March. He is a double major, one of which is film. We were watching a bunch of movies he hadn’t seen before. That was fun. It’s nice to have him around as an adult too. You re-meet your kids as adults. I can’t say I liked all the movies that we chose together, but I liked a lot and he chose “Night of the Hunter” recently. I love that movie. I hadn’t seen it since college. Robert Mitchum is really good at playing bad guys. We’re all eating well, too, because there’s plenty of time to cook. I have to recommend to people there’s a peach pound cake recipe from The New York Times this year. That is just outstanding and, it’s peach season . It’s really a fantastic recipe. If you eat a whole pound cake, you’ll never move again, but it’s really good.
Any parting thoughts before we wrap up?
I do think that there are so many opportunities for lawyers to make things better. We’re in a time now when things are bad and maybe there are people who disagree with me, but I think things are really bad. We’re also privileged have the power and the training to help people. Now’s the time to do it. If you’re waiting for something, waiting for a time when you’re really going to be needed, this is the time. You’ve got the time; we’re all stuck at home. You should go and do it.
If you’re not a lawyer and you’re interested in these issues, what organizations do you follow?
There are plenty of organizations that support civil liberties and the ACLU is certainly one of those organizations and they do plenty of good work. You can write letters to the paper. There’s plenty of stuff you can do aside from writing checks, but that’s not a terrible place to start. Call the ACLU, call the NAACP, call your local chapters of whatever the organization is that you’re interested in. There’s plenty to do, not just on civil liberties too, but on environmental issues and all sorts of things on, on low income housing, on whatever. There are so many ways for people to get involved and I find that these organizations really want the help and you don’t have to be a lawyer. They want whatever help they can get, and I think that’s a great thing.
Caitlan McCafferty: The most important part of our democracy and our society is participation. So, volunteer.
Jeremy Sacks: It’s not a spectator sport. I still like to watch “Mr. Smith goes to Washington” and it still gets me, when he collapses on the floor at the end.
Wonderful. Jeremy, I’m thrilled you could join me today. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation. If people want to know more about you, where should they go?
You can go to Stoel.com and look me up. My name is, J E R E M Y S A C K S. You can see me there and I’d be happy to hear from anybody.
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