Davis Polk and Bank of America partner to support Afghan and Ukrainian refugees
Through the recent Afghan and Ukrainian humanitarian emergencies, Davis Polk and client Bank of America have collaborated to host virtual clinics for refugees seeking asylum and Temporary Protective Status in the U.S. These clinics, powered by volunteer lawyers and legal assistants from both firms, were held in partnership with Human Rights First and New York Legal Assistance Group.
We sat down with Mary Akhimien and Nishan Bhaumik to discuss this ongoing pro bono collaboration (another clinic is planned for April 2023), that all began with a one-day event last year.
Mary, Nishan, can you introduce yourselves and describe your respective roles at Bank of America and Davis Polk?
Mary: I am currently Associate General Counsel, Senior Vice President at Bank of America, serving as a trusted advisor and legal partner to executive management within Global Human Resources. I also co-lead our legal department’s Global Community Engagement Steering Committee and actively shape our department’s multidisciplinary workplace culture through the Employee Engagement Council’s Growth & Development arm.
Nishan: I develop and supervise Davis Polk’s pro bono humanitarian immigration matters as both a subject matter specialist and case manager. My position was established in part because Davis Polk’s immigration docket continues to grow rapidly—we are at close to 200 cases right now. I have a background in pro bono legal services advising law firms regarding immigration cases in this realm; being on the other side of it now, it’s amazing to do this work at a firm of Davis Polk’s caliber and be able to take advantage of those resources for pro bono.
Nishan, tell us about Davis Polk’s pro bono immigration practice and how it has developed in response to recent events in Afghanistan and Ukraine.
Nishan: Our pro bono matters range from short-term or limited-scope clinics all the way up to providing defensive appellate work in federal court. Our work involves humanitarian applications for asylees, refugees of war and natural disasters, and survivors of trafficking and violence, at all stages of litigation. We also help legal service organizations in their efforts for broader policy change.
The crisis in Afghanistan was a turning point for pro bono immigration work across the country. It was the first time you saw such a concentrated emergency and need to represent tens of thousands of people at one time. As a result, it was maybe also the first time there was such significant national collaboration between law firms and legal service organizations as well as law firms working together. This trend shows the significant value of collaboration in this space. By coordinating resources, skills and knowledge, we not only create a much bigger impact, but law firms can provide opportunities for in-house lawyers at client companies who are often very excited to work on these pressing pro bono issues.
Mary, how did you come to be involved in the Afghan and Ukrainian refugee clinics?
Mary: I first became involved through Global Financial Institution Pro Bono Day last April, during which Bank of America and Davis Polk co-sponsored the Afghan refugee clinic. During the clinic, we met virtually with refugees and screened them on behalf of Human Rights First, our partnering legal services organization. This involved learning about the refugees’ experiences in Afghanistan, assessing their current immigration status in the U.S., and recording critical information that laid the foundation for them to receive pro bono legal assistance. The Bank of America participants were so inspired by the experience that many volunteered to continue partnering with Davis Polk in screening refugees in the months to come.
Shortly thereafter, as the crisis in Ukraine progressed to a point when refugees were beginning to arrive in the U.S., there was an opportunity to help this population apply for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) with another clinic. In response, I worked with the Davis Polk team to spearhead an inaugural pro bono opportunity for Bank of America’s summer interns to volunteer in the refugee clinic.
What was your experience like at the clinics?
Mary: The most memorable moments were listening to the refugees’ stories and seeing the glimmer of hope in their eyes as we assisted them with applying for TPS. They were grateful for the support and expressed their gratitude at the conclusion of the clinic.
Nishan, what about you? Have there been any particularly memorable interactions during your work with these refugees?
Nishan: Working on the clinics is a great opportunity to provide the most amount of support to the greatest number of people. It’s been very interesting doing them during the pandemic, because we have the increased opportunity to provide remote legal services. Our clients, caseworkers, and translators can be located all over the world, and everyone comes together to represent one client. We also get to meet clients in their own environments where they’re most comfortable. Clients have introduced us to their children, given us tours of their apartment, and apologized for any number of pets causing mayhem during the interview. Even though it’s remote, you actually get to connect on a more intimate level with clients than you would in a Davis Polk conference room.
In terms of memorable experiences, you meet wonderful, wonderful people around the world who will really do anything to help out. We had one translator in Uzbekistan who stayed with us for the entire length of a case even though it meant she was often participating in our meetings from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. her time and losing sleep. Interpreters usually keep their cameras off and it’s really rare to have personal interactions with them—they keep a strict professional boundary. But at our last prep meeting, before going to her hearing, the client asked the interpreter if she could turn her camera on so she could thank her personally, and she did. They realized they had friends in common and grew up in the same area in Afghanistan. It turned out that the interpreter had a legal background in Afghanistan but then fled to Uzbekistan. It was a deeply touching and personal moment to see two people on opposite sides of the world, separated by a crisis, come together and help each other through an extremely difficult situation. It’s a privilege to be able to do this work and witness these discreet moments of humanity and resilience.
Mary, more generally, what makes pro bono work meaningful to you? What other types of pro bono work do you have experience with?
Mary: The shared experience of helping to serve the under-served alongside my colleagues, peers, and great collaborative partners like Davis Polk is very meaningful to me. It’s an opportunity to make a real difference in another’s life, and that is something I will always cherish.
I also have experience volunteering at wills clinics and working with individuals to expunge their criminal records, which supports them in moving on and succeeding in their future endeavors.
Mary, you’ve done pro bono work throughout your career—what advice would you have for lawyers seeking to do pro bono work while in-house? For those who are not currently employed somewhere with an active pro bono practice, do you have any recommendations for launching new pro bono initiatives?
Mary: I would say “jump right in!” There is no better way to learn than to just do it. I would also recommend that in-house lawyers reach out to their law firm counterparts to explore if collaboration on pro bono work is possible, find ways to deepen those relationships and further engage. By volunteering to help others in this way, you never know whose life you will impact. And, oftentimes, those you help will in-turn leave an indelible imprint on you.
To learn more about Davis Polk’s Pro Bono practice and potential opportunities for collaboration, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org