Individual Lawyers Speak Out Against 'Dobbs' While Official Statements From Big Law Remain Sparse
Individual lawyers and firms alike vow increased pro bono resources to support people with women's health challenges.
Responses to Friday’s overturning of Roe v. Wade from lawyers at top law firms continue to gather momentum, yet much of the reaction is coming from individual lawyers rather than law firms themselves.
In particular, hundreds of women attorneys have collected together to show their indignation over the ruling and their resolve to keep women’s productive rights alive in the United States.
Jennifer Kennedy Park, a partner at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton in New York, was among a group of women who put together a statement by women law partners on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, condemning the decision.
“Each of the undersigned has the great honor and privilege of being members of the bar. We swore oaths to support and defend the Constitution. We take that oath seriously. We know that our ability to serve in the legal profession and swear that oath was hard fought and rests fundamentally on the premise and promise that we, as women and people who have or had the potential to become pregnant, are free and equal citizens under the law,” the women wrote. “And our presence and leadership within the bar is without question a byproduct of the freedom each of us has had to make reproductive decisions for ourselves.”
Park said Monday afternoon that the number of signatories is over 800. She noted those signatures were collected by “word of mouth” in less than 24 hours.
“We cannot let that failure stand,” the women wrote of the decision. “As lawyers, and officers of the courts, we know we have unique abilities and responsibilities in the wake of this decision. To honor that responsibility and our oath to support the Constitution, we each commit ourselves to offering our pro bono legal services to organizations that defend and support women’s rights to autonomy, equality and safe access to reproductive care, including abortion.”
“Each of us, as women partners at major law firms, have that privilege because we have each had reproductive freedom,” Park said in an interview. “So, how could we not have spoken out and committed ourselves to action? I hope that the community sees that we’re ready—despite what is an incredibly egregious decision—to fight. We have called for others to join the fight with us, and they have responded in turn.”
Claudia Hammerman, a partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, was also one of the organizers of the letter.
“I had an abortion as a young woman, and have never regretted it,” said Hammerman, adding that she knows “for a certainty” that her abortion allowed her to chart her own life, and to eventually become a partner at a premier law firm. “It also allowed me to become a parent at a time when I knew I would have the resources—economic and emotional—to be the best parent that I could be.”
Hammerman said there is ”simply no question”—from the conversations that she has had with other women lawyers—that the ranks of women equity partners would be “severely depleted” had women not had access to safe and legal abortion in the event of an unintended pregnancy.
Another organizer of the statement, Debevoise & Plimpton partner Shannon Rose Selden, said women who signed the open letter are taking a risk by voicing their views.
“We all realize that it is not riskless to come out and take a stand on this issue—especially in the world of social media—but we think that it is important,” said Selden, adding that while there has been a “universal call” for greater diversity within the legal profession, the legal community has not always recognized how crucial reproductive freedom is to the inclusion of women in law, or any other profession.
Jamie Levitt, a managing partner of Morrison & Foerster’s New York office who also helped organize the statement, said it was a privilege to join forces with other law firm partners to make a public statement of commitment to fight for reproductive justice, and to call others to join.
“The research is clear and overwhelming that the ability to decide if and when to have or expand a family is fundamental to women’s success and equal status in society as well as their personal autonomy,” said Levitt, the daughter of a physician who practiced before Roe v. Wade and saw “first-hand” how the criminalization of abortion harms women. “Women will not stop having abortions, they will just lose access to safe abortions. I have fought for reproductive rights in my pro bono work for decades, including as counsel on the Texas SB8 litigation, and served as a member of the Board of the Center for Reproductive Rights. And after Dobbs, I will redouble my efforts.”
In an earlier copy of the statement seen by The American Lawyer, dozens of lawyers from leading firms attached their name and endorsement, including at least 15 lawyers from Cleary; 35 from Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison; 22 from White & Case, one from Baker & McKenzie; 24 from Sullivan & Cromwell; 22 from White & Case; 26 from Debevoise & Plimpton; seven from Clifford Chance US; three from Cravath, Swaine & Moore; eight from Frankfurt Kurnit Klein; six from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher; two from Hogan Lovells; two from Holland & Knight; 44 from Jenner & Block; 15 from K&L Gates; two from Kirkland & Ellis; one from Latham & Watkins; one from Manatt, Phelps & Phillips; two from Mayer Brown; 36 from McDermott Will & Emery; 40 from Morrison & Foerster; two from Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe; three from Seyfarth Shaw; 20 from Shearman & Sterling; two from Sidley Austin; 28 from Simpson Thacher & Bartlett; 31 from Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom; 11 from Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz; and 44 from Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr.
Beyond the statement from the 800+ lawyers, other lawyers have also voiced their intent to provide pro bono services for people facing women’s health challenges.
A spokesperson for Ropes & Gray told The American Lawyer that on Friday, the firm had more than 265 people sign up for pro bono opportunities, and he expected more to do so over the weekend.
Ropes chair Julie Jones was one of several female firm leaders who were quick to make internal statements to their colleagues about the decision in emails and memos sent firmwide. Jones expressed feelings of vulnerability as a woman and fear for the country as a whole. Kim Koopersmith, chair of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, offered her “understanding to those of you who are feeling profound distress in the loss of a right that has been recognized as fundamental for a half-century.” Morgan Lewis & Bockius chair Jami McKeon acknowledged there will likely be “polarized” views of the Dobbs decision, as well as “more nuanced views of the role of elected officials and the courts in restricting access to abortion.” Steptoe & Johnson chair Gwen Renigar gave the firm’s lawyers and business professionals the day off Friday, to reflect.
Few Firms Make Public Statements
While many individual lawyers have spoken up, few firms or firm leaders have made public statements on Dobbs.
There is a variety of reasons firms might not be issuing public statements. Many Big Law firms have offices in jurisdictions where their collective views might be unpopular, such as Texas, said the practice head of one Am Law 100 firm. The firms may also be wary of alienating clients that are pro life.
The practice head noted that while firms might not be making specific public statements, the 23 firms who have joined the San Francisco alliance have ostensibly made their feelings known on the public stage.
One Big Law chair who has made a statement on behalf of his firm was Larren Nashelsky of Morrison & Foerster.
“The Supreme Court’s opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization today struck down 50 years of precedent that we, on behalf of our clients, have fought to defend,” said Nashelsky in a statement, adding that Morrison & Foerster has worked “tirelessly” to protect women’s health care rights, including a woman’s fundamental right to choose when, and whether, to have children.
Last month, after a draft opinion in Dobbs leaked, Nashelsky promised that Morrison & Foerster would “redouble” its efforts to protect abortion and other reproductive rights.
“We honor that promise today,” wrote Nashelsky, adding that over the last few weeks, the firm had joined new initiatives to protect reproductive freedom, and to defend health care providers and others who are targeted for helping women obtain reproductive services. “We will continue to marshal the time, talent, and resources zealously to advocate for our clients and their cause.”
“I know so many of us are angry, upset, despondent, deeply troubled and, frankly, scared of what this means for women choosing to obtain reproductive services and all others affected by today’s decision,” wrote Nashelsky. “There are no easy answers today—just the need to keep fighting to protect the liberty and autonomy of women. Morrison & Foerster proudly remains on the front lines.”
Morrison & Foerster was one of 23 original signatories to an initiative aimed at providing free legal services to those who will be affected if Roe v. Wade were to be struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. The alliance is led by San Francisco city attorney David Chiu and supported by the San Francisco Bar Association. Other founding firms include Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer; Crowell & Moring; Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe; Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison; and Willkie Farr & Gallagher.
Monday the board of directors of Cooley, publicly expressed their “shared commitment” to gender equality and principles of diversity, equity and inclusion, and to fighting for reproductive rights.
“The issues addressed in reproductive rights cases are indivisible from our values as a firm, as demonstrated by the spectrum of our pro bono work, which seeks to protect the rule of law, facilitate access to justice, and prevent disparate impacts on underrepresented communities,” wrote the Cooley board. “We respect that there are a range of personal beliefs around these issues. Yet we must acknowledge this rollback of rights and protections that have existed for decades and that affect so many of our colleagues. Concerns that impact any of us affect all of us. We have the utmost faith in our ability to support one another, through all our differences, with compassion, understanding and care.”
Local Alliances Pledge National Support
As news of the Dobbs decision spread around the legal community, San Francisco Bar Association president Mary McNamara members were “prepared to fight.”
“We are ready to defend access to reproductive healthcare and protect those in need of legal assistance. Dobbs not only reverses nearly 50 years of precedent, it empowers the cruelest, most barbarous treatment of women imaginable. Women will be imprisoned, their health will suffer, their families will be impoverished. Some will die. This is a nationwide crisis,” said McNamara.
Arnold & Porter partner Teresa Johnson, who is heavily involved in the alliance, said the alliance will work closely with organizations such as Planned Parenthood, the Center for Reproductive Rights and national advocates for pregnant women, who will likely be the first call for people needing help.
“We’re all keenly aware that the people who are going to be most adversely affected by this ruling are members of underrepresented communities, of minorities, and people with limited means—magnifying the tragedy of all of this,” she said.
On Friday, a Fenwick & West spokesperson said it too had joined the alliance, as well as one in New York.
The Fenwick spokesperson said “we have received a big response from Fenwickians about the opinion and many partners and firm leadership have sent messages expressing support and concern for our firm community reeling from the decision and its potential impact.”
The firm’s diversity, equity and inclusion team Friday facilitated small virtual gatherings to create a “safe space to discuss and share their thoughts and feelings” about the ruling.
“We are encouraging people to reach out to our Women’s Caucus to share ideas and to find support and community,” said the spokesperson.
Fenwick is also working with the Center for Reproductive Rights to accept cases brought against women’s health clinicians or clinics under the Texas Heartbeat Act (Texas SB 8), which outlaws abortion after six weeks of pregnancy and is enforced by civil lawsuits brought by private citizens.
A spokesperson for another founding member of the San Francisco-based alliance, Farella Braun + Martel, said the firm “stands in solidarity” with those who support a woman’s right to choose.
“As lawyers, we will do our part to fight in the courts to see that this ruling is reversed,” said the spokesperson.
Keker, Van Nest & Peters managing partner Steve Taylor said his firm has not only joined the San Francisco alliance, but had also filed an amicus brief in the Dobbs case, representing more than 150 economists and researchers to show the Court how causal-inference tools have been used to isolate and measure the impacts of abortion legalization in the U.S., and to model what would happen if Roe were overturned or limited.
“As a firm, we will continue to fight for safe, accessible reproductive healthcare,” said Taylor.
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