An itchy “trigger” finger when it comes to pro bono work

By Alexandra Schwappach
Daily Journal Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES – Most attorneys might think twice about taking on thousands of hours of pro bono work involving tricky and polarizing legislation in addition to a full case docket. But that’s exactly what Kirkland & Ellis LLP litigator Mark C. Holscher did when he dove head first into efforts aimed at reforming two failing California schools.

Holscher said he and his team have spent 2,500 pro bono hours and counting over the past two years involved in the state’s fi rst attempts at utilizing the California’s Parent Empowerment Act of 2010. Dubbed the “parent trigger” law, the statute allows parents who collect signatures representing more than 50 percent of students to overhaul low-performing schools. Last year, Holscher worked with Parent Revolution, a non-profit organization advocating for parent trigger laws, to attempt an overhaul of McKinley Elementary in Compton. This year Holscher and his team of five attorneys along with Parent Revolution are giving it a second try with Desert TrailsElementary School in Adelanto – and seeing results.

“Our focus is if there are poor families that are trying to protect their kids, we think it’s an area that we’ll put resources into,” Holscher said.

Earlier this month, San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge John Vander Feer ordered Adelanto Elementary School board members to reverse their previous decision rejecting a parent petition for a charter campus at the school, allowing parents who signed the petition to go forward with a vote to choose the potential charter school operator.

After months of battling the courts and opposition from parents, teachers, and organizations including the California Teachers Association, parents who signed the petition consider the ruling a huge victory.

But while most agree that elementary education should be a priority, there has been stark disagreement about how that should be accomplished. One of the top concerns from those opposed to the parent trigger statute is job security for teachers, but more than that was at the forefront of the debate in the several months leading up to Vander Feer’s Oct. 12 ruling.

Both sides accused the other of intimidation, bullying, lying, and forging petition signatures. Frank Wells, spokesman for CTA in Santa Fe Springs, said Parent Revolution is “a well-funded group that is very supportive ofthe law but not willing to take a look atsome ofthe problems with it.

“Whenever [Parent Revolution] meets opposition, they blame the CTA of flying in dozens of operatives from Sacramento to get signatures rescinded,” Wells said. “There was no union invasion of Adelanto, but they kept promoting that story. It is extremely frustrating.

Parent Revolution founder Ben Austin said that Holscher and his team brought reform to what was becoming a “lawless environment.

Without the help of the attorneys, he said the movement would have been “stopped in its tracks.

“Our lawyers really stepped up to the plate,” he said. “They ran circles around the districts’ lawyers.

Sandford “Sandy” Lechtick, founder of California-based legal search firm Esquire Inc., said pro bono work has gone down dramatically since the recession and in some cases is still very low.

But he said big firms with “deep pockets” have the ability to allow their attorneys to invest in heavy work for free.

“At top firms, especially financially strongest firms, those [pro bono] hours are not going to impact them at all,

Lechtick said. “Kirkland is one of the most profitable law firms in the nation.

Lechtick said for a firm like Kirkland, pro bono work is not about marketing or business development. Instead, it’s about the firm giving its attorneys the leeway to pursue work they feel passionately about.

“All of us need to remember that if our kids go to a failed grade school, they don’t go to high school. They don’t go to college,” Holscher said at a press conference on October 15. “On behalf of all the lawyers at Kirkland & Ellis, we’re not going to stop. We love these parents and we love these kids.

Holscher said there are three or four other pro bono cases in progress the firm’s L.A. office that focus primarily on poor school districts and access to education for poor families.

“I think one of the reasons we sought out parent trigger work was because it became clear to us that these bottom-performing schools are usually in some of the poorest of areas, and they don’t have the resources to fight it,” Holscher said.

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