Davis Polk announces 2023 Pro Bono Award honorees
Davis Polk is delighted to announce the 2023 winners of the firm’s annual Pro Bono Awards.
Among our traditional individual and team awards, this year for the first time we are proud to also recognize five “Pro Bono Advocates.”
This year’s award recipients have consistently demonstrated the commitment, care and excellence to which we aspire in giving back to our broader community and assisting those in need. We celebrate a long legacy of pro bono work at Davis Polk driven by these core values and applaud these honorees for their outstanding achievements.
In honor of our individual and team award recipients, the firm will make charitable donations to nonprofits chosen by the individual honorees or associated with the work of the four teams we are recognizing.
Alexa Jacobson: Alexa is currently in the midst of an innocence investigation, working on behalf of our client, a Black man, who has been incarcerated on a life sentence for over 30 years for a murder he did not commit. Appeals, post-release motions and clemency bids brought by our client’s former counsel were unsuccessful, which closed various avenues of relief, making Davis Polk’s work more difficult. Alexa has co-led a team of over 15 lawyers, overseeing various workstreams, driving strategy development and building an encyclopedic grasp of the voluminous record. Because of Alexa’s leadership, the team maintains faith that they may one day be able to secure justice for our client. Alexa has been equally instrumental leading a Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (DVSJA) resentencing matter on behalf of a sex trafficking survivor who stabbed a sex buyer who became violent, tragically causing his death. Alexa has applied her knowledge of the fast-developing body of DVSJA law and excellent organizational and leadership skills to propel this matter forward, all while demonstrating extensive compassion and patience in her communications with our traumatized client.
Kate Somers: Kate has been an instrumental member of the Davis Polk team representing the Brooklyn Public Library as it joins with three other New York City cultural institutions to establish the L10 Arts and Cultural Center, an innovative community cultural hub in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Since being staffed on this matter as a junior associate, Kate has taken on responsibilities far beyond what was expected of her, including a leadership role in drafting and negotiating the project’s main agreement, a complex bespoke document at the center of this intricate partnership which governs how parties will use the Center’s space, allocate costs, make decisions and resolve disputes. Throughout this process, Kate has built strong trust with the Library’s senior executives and successfully liaised with and built consensus among the other cultural organizations and their legal counsel. She has developed a deep understanding of the complex relationship between the four parties, and served as the driving force in keeping up the momentum as this process nears completion. Among many other aspects involved with this collaboration, Kate has also been an active contributor to the complicated negotiation of the partnership’s agreement with a New York City agency.
Nino Stamatovic: Nino joined one of Davis Polk’s longest-running asylum cases shortly after he arrived at the firm in 2009 – that of a man from Sierra Leone who was held prisoner and tortured by a terrorist group during civil war. After escaping and eventually fleeing to the U.S. in 2001, he applied for asylum properly, but for the 20+ years since, his case has suffered from a series of government errors and delays. Nino has been a critical constant on this case, both in leading the team and serving as its institutional memory, and has navigated the team through some of asylum law’s most difficult processes with skill and great perseverance. All the while, he has also forged a deep personal connection with the client and his family – who are thriving in the U.S. despite this exhausting legal saga – and inspired him to keep going in the quest to finally obtain legal status. After several highly contested hearings this year, the case continues and Nino is keeping the team on course in preparing for the remainder of the trial set for 2024.
Read to Lead team: This team represented Read to Lead, a nonprofit focused on providing literacy education to underserved middle schoolers. The organization, which was founded 30 years ago, built digital learning games that both teach literacy skills and introduce students to potential future career paths, which many of them would have no exposure to otherwise. Unfortunately, in 2022 Read to Lead decided to dissolve and donate all of its remaining assets, including their proprietary learning game software, to a nonprofit that would carry on their legacy. Dissolutions present a myriad of regulatory and transactional hurdles, which this large team of Davis Polk lawyers enthusiastically tackled with excellence, grace and compassion. A corporate governance team navigated the complicated dissolution process with the New York Attorney General’s Charities Bureau and the Department of State, real estate lawyers negotiated and documented a lease termination for Read to Lead’s office space, executive compensation lawyers drafted employee releases and related agreements, tax lawyers advised on restrictions around returning donor grants, and an IP team worked on first, an asset assignment, and later – with an M&A assist – an asset transfer to the recipient of Read to Lead’s assets, the Center for Educational Innovation.
The team included partners Kyoko Takahashi Lin, Pritesh Shah, Mario Verdolini and Marc Williams, counsel Larry Plotkin, Counsel and Head of Corporate & Transactional Pro Bono Nancy Marchand, Pro Bono Counsel for Corporate & Transactional Matters Jillian Berman and associates Sheryl Bohan, Elizabeth Case, Mary Jane Dumankaya, Javier Felix, Julia Hirschberg, Gabriella Okafor, Albert Park and Alexis Wallace.
Hague Convention trial team: This team represented our client, the mother of two children, who fled Spain with her children in 2021 to escape their father’s domestic abuse and out of concern about his connections to organized crime and drug trafficking. The father petitioned under the Hague Convention for the children’s return to Spain. In June 2023, following an eight-day trial that concluded in March, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York issued a favorable decision for our client in a case brought under the Hague Convention. With the court’s decision, the father’s petition was denied. The trial included direct and cross examinations of both parties, six additional fact witnesses, and three expert witnesses plus multiple motions in limine, motions to strike and motions which defy description. The team, ranging from first-year to senior-level associates, prepared and conducted witness examinations and argued legal motions. Davis Polk submitted a post-trial brief well over 100 pages, from which the Court borrowed heavily in its decision. Sanctuary for Families originally referred the client to Davis Polk given the firm’s significant experience litigating Hague matters on behalf of survivors of domestic violence. The Davis Polk team continues to represent the client on the father’s appealfrom the S.D.N.Y. decision.
The team included Chief Pro Bono Counsel Amelia Starr, Counsel and Head of Pro Bono Litigation Dara Sheinfeld, associates Brendan Blase, Mollie Hamel, Meredith Manning, Ryann Moelis, Maria Morris, James Park, Paul Shortell and Zoë Smith, legal assistant Conor Chmiel and former associate Emma Schwartz.
DVSJA appellate team: This team secured a precedent-setting victory on behalf of our pro bono client Taylor Partlow, a survivor of life-threatening domestic violence. The Appellate Division, Fourth Department resentenced our client under the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (DVSJA) to less than time served, removing over three years from her sentence and making her immediately eligible for release. Days after the DVSJA went into effect, our client was convicted of first-degree manslaughter for stabbing her abusive boyfriend a single time during a domestic violence incident in which he had violently attacked her and was lunging at her again – with a criminal court order of protection in effect, prohibiting him from being in her presence. Although multiple witnesses testified at trial about numerous domestic violence incidents they had seen Ms. Partlow’s boyfriend perpetrate against her – including acts of strangulation, a predictor of domestic violence femicide – the trial court declined to sentence her under the DVSJA. The trial court held that the abuse she had suffered was not substantial and that it was not a significant contributing factor to her crime. The Fourth Department opinion unanimously held that the trial court erred in finding that the statutory elements of the DVSJA had not been met. In addition, rather than remanding the case to the trial court for resentencing, the Fourth Department took the notable step of resentencing Ms. Partlow itself. The decision is the first DVSJA opinion in the Fourth Department and therefore sets an important precedent, which should help countless domestic violence survivors petitioning for relief in the future.
The Davis Polk team includes senior counsel Robert Fiske, Jr. and Denis McInerney, Chief Pro Bono Counsel Amelia Starr, Head of Pro Bono Litigation Dara Sheinfeld, associates Nikolaus Williams, Corey Meyer and Sarah Bartlett, legal assistant Mya Gelber, former associates Christine LiCalzi, Josh Pitkoff and Emma Schwartz and former law clerk Hugh Verrier. Professional Responsibility Counsel Jerome Snider provided invaluable assistance in preparation for oral argument.
Central American client asylum team: Since 2015, this team based in our Northern California office has represented an indigenous woman from Guatemala and her daughter in their pursuit of legal asylum, which they won following a trial before the San Francisco Immigration Court in June. The mother and daughter first entered the United States in 2015 to escape sexual violence and threats from gangs targeting indigenous women. The team was able to obtain and submit detailed evidence regarding the abuse suffered, including from a number of witnesses in Guatemala, as well as psychological evaluations detailing the effects of the abuse. The team also submitted evidence showing that their client had a well-founded fear of persecution based on her membership in protected social groups if she were to be returned. At the conclusion of the hearing, the judge issued a ruling from the bench granting both individuals asylum, with the government waiving appeal. In granting asylum, the judge commended Davis Polk’s team on the quality of their submissions and work at trial. In addition to preparing for the asylum hearing, the team also prepared a U-visa application in parallel.
The team included partner Micah Block, Pro Bono Counsel for Humanitarian Immigration Matters Nishan Bhaumik, associates Michael Haney, Tyson Dean Kennedy, Greg Travers and Christian Mueller, and former associates Natalie Cha, Catherine Kennedy and Ingrid Perez.
Pro Bono Advocates
Ian Hogg: Ian has been a leader on several pro bono teams while also coordinating our Northern California office’s pro bono docket. He’s played an invaluable role helping to lead a project with the Promise of Justice Initiative, where he helped to organize teams and develop legal strategies for almost 70 Davis Polk lawyers seeking relief for 23 clients incarcerated in Louisiana based on a Jim Crow-era law. Ian also recently participated in a family court trial during which he skillfully cross-examined one of the key opposing witnesses.
Amber Leary: Over the past year, Amber has served as a leader on a number of pro bono teams while also advocating on behalf of a domestic violence survivor. For the Vera Institute of Justice, she has led a project seeking to make policing more just and also helped to draft an amicus brief to promote fair access to educational opportunities in New York. For the Prospect Park Alliance, Amber leads a team of associates who have undertaken a complex corporate governance project to update the organization’s bylaws. On a previous nonprofit matter, Amber prepared a Gift Acceptance Policy for the Council for Black Business Enterprises and, once it was complete, conducted an in-depth presentation about the new policy for its board of directors.
Paul Shortell: Paul has led several pro bono matters while also coordinating our Washington DC office pro bono docket. He is currently advocating on behalf of a client from Myanmar seeking asylum who would face jail or physical harm due to his political views and sexual orientation if he were forced to return. Additionally, Paul is on a team seeking release of an incarcerated client who received an excessive sentence at a young age. In the past, Paul has played significant roles on trial teams that received favorable decisions on behalf of our client in an international child abduction case and for our client in a domestic violence case.
Elizabeth Tippett: Liz has been involved in pro bono work since she joined the firm and most recently led the drafting of an amicus brief on behalf of a person wrongly convicted of child abuse. She also drafted and argued a complex and challenging criminal appeal in the Second Department. In addition, Liz has been critical to the firm’s election protection work, serving as one of leads for Davis Polk’s Election Protection Hotline call center during the 2022 midterm elections. In this role, she helped coordinate 165 volunteers from the broader Davis Polk community, including lawyers, clients, business services professionals, summer associates and alumni, to address questions from voters across the country on topics ranging from registration and ID requirements to voter intimidation and misinformation.
Kennedi Williams-Libert: Kennedi has played a key role on several pro bono matters at the firm and has been an ambassador for Davis Polk pro bono in the broader legal community. Kennedi serves as co-chair for the Law Firm Anti-Racism Alliance’s Criminal Legal Working group, for which she has co-managed a project with nearly twenty law firms across the country, laying the groundwork for an initiative to seek posthumous pardons to Black people wrongfully convicted and executed because of their race during the Jim Crow era. She has also worked on a number of projects on behalf of incarcerated and other vulnerable individuals throughout the country, including representing a wrongfully convicted man and co-leading a team conducting research to support litigation seeking to remedy cruel, unsafe and unconstitutional prison conditions in Louisiana.
Lean more about Davis Polk’s Pro Bono program.