By Annelise Jolley
Positioned strategically in a port and border city, Casa Cornelia Law Center provides free legal services to those who most need them. The San Diego non-profit organization serves asylum seekers fleeing persecution in their home countries, immigrant victims of domestic violence and human trafficking, and unaccompanied children.
“We have a doorway to the world,” says Executive Director Carmen Chavez. “We are on the border and an international port of entry. [Added] to the human beings, commerce, ideas, and richness that comes from being at the border are individuals who have come in great need, and who the law has recognized as being meritorious of that protection.”
Since 1993, more than 17,000 children, women, and men have turned to Casa Cornelia for critical legal assistance and humanitarian protection. These individuals are assisted by Casa Cornelia legal staff and a cadre of volunteer attorneys, many of whom come from local law firms with a commitment to providing pro bono legal services.
Latham & Watkins LLP is one of these firms. For over two decades, Latham & Watkins LLP has partnered with Casa Cornelia to serve victims of human and civil rights violations in Southern California. In 2019, Latham devoted over 1,200 hours of pro bono legal work to Casa Cornelia’s clients, taking on humanitarian and immigration cases to assist adult asylum seekers, migrant children, and victims of violent offenses.
“The priority of our pro bono program is to engage on behalf of individuals who would otherwise be denied access to basic civil and human rights without the benefit of a lawyer,” says Shawn Cobb, who leads the firm’s pro bono committee at the San Diego office. “For immigrants fleeing violence and oppression, lodging a successful claim to access immigration relief in the United States without an attorney is nearly impossible. …We believe that providing free legal counsel to groups and individuals of limited means is a necessary component of our justice system and intrinsic to the very idea of practicing law.”
The firm’s partnership with Casa Cornelia is a system of mutual benefit. Clients receive top-notch representation at no cost. At the same time, attorneys hone their skills and gain experience while also facilitating life-changing results for their clients. “It’s a wonderful morale booster within the law firm to be doing this kind of human rights work,” says Chavez, a lawyer herself. “It feels good to work at a firm that supports that good work.”
Cobb agrees that this kind of volunteer opportunity has an outsize impact on attorneys’ satisfaction and legal development. “Many attorneys choose to pursue their careers at Latham, at least in part, because of our firm’s commitment to pro bono work,” he says. “Time and again, our attorneys tell us that those outcomes—the child saved from an unjust deportation, the asylum-seeker saved from persecution and possible death—are some of the most psychologically rewarding outcomes of their careers.”
Latham & Watkins will be honored with the Pro Bono Law Firm of the Year award at Casa Cornelia’s upcoming La Mancha Awards. The event, which will be hosted virtually this year, takes place on Thursday, October 15.
The event is named for Don Quixote of La Mancha, the errant knight who dreams whimsical and impossible dreams. “We have an opportunity to be that knight, and to not only dream impossible dreams, but to dream possible dreams, and make dreams a reality,” says Chavez. “[Don Quixote’s] story has a lot to do with justice and coming to the aid of those that are in pain. So we have taken on that name. It’s called La Mancha Awards for those stellar individuals that have raised their lamps to fight for justice.”
As one of Casa Cornelia’s long-standing partners, Chavez says she and her team are excited to honor Latham & Watkins at the upcoming award ceremony. The firm was selected because of its commitment to pro bono work, outstanding service, and leadership. Last year, a team of Latham & Watkins attorneys collaborated to deliver legal representation on an urgent case. Without their expertise and participation, Casa Cornelia would not have been able to assist a client who had suffered intensely. “[Latham & Watkins] answered that call,” says Chavez. “They came forward and they said, ‘We’ll take care of it.’ In this work we’re constantly humbled by the incredible resiliency of the clients that we serve, but also the incredible commitment of our attorneys.”
Cobb says that for its part, the firm is honored and gratified to know that their services have made an impact. “At the same time, we are humbled to receive this award at a time when the unmet pro bono needs of our community are perhaps higher than they have ever been. We hope that this award, and our own ongoing commitment to pro bono service, will inspire other law firms and attorneys to reach out and assist those in need even more than they have in the past.”
[call_to_action color=” button_text=’Learn More’ button_url=’https://casacornelia.networkforgood.com/events/22414-13th-annual-la-mancha-awards-virtual-program’]Learn more about Casa Cornelia by attending the virtual La Mancha Awards event on Thursday, October 15 at 5:30pm. The event will feature client stories, awardee segments, and more.[/call_to_action]