In June, Venable's Pro Bono Committee announced the winners of the 2023 Benjamin R. Civiletti Pro Bono Lawyer of the Year Awards at its annual reception. This year, the firm honored the contributions of associates Christopher Brown, Christopher Conn, and Jonathan Hettleman, and former partner Seth Rosenthal.
The event kicked off with remarks from former Venable partner, Congressman John P. Sarbanes (MD-3). He reminisced about working with Ben Civiletti, who he said instilled in him the importance of giving back to one's community.
"It's not enough to be a great lawyer serving a certain set of clients," Sarbanes said. "You need to be a citizen lawyer."
Partner and pro bono chair Warren Hamel told attendees that Venable bills around 30,000 pro bono hours each year, though 40% of the firm's nearly 900 attorneys do not participate. Hamel said he hopes to change that by bringing in matters for those who are more comfortable handling compliance or regulatory work than high-pressure litigation.
In April, the first awardee, Hettleman, helped Venable win a decision vacating the death penalty for the last Maryland resident on federal death row. Hettleman was a core member of the team led by Rosenthal and co-counsel from several federal public defenders' offices.
In accepting the award, Hettleman said this matter was "an incredible experience" and "such a meaningful part" of his early career as an attorney.
"To me, the ability to do pro bono work in the cases that I have done is the primary way I've been able to see and feel and experience the impact of the work that we do on our clients' lives."
Hettleman added that as an associate, pro bono cases allow him to take a hands-on approach and develop a more personal relationship with the client.
"The relationships have begun in some cases with jail phone calls and visits in prison, and they've developed to people coming home from prison, getting released from prison as a result of our efforts, and having those conversations not over recorded jail phone calls, but over breakfast or lunch together."
Conn took home an award for his work with the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland, where he serves as a liaison between Venable and the Baltimore City Tenant Volunteer Lawyer of the Day (TVLD) program. Conn said this work helped him gain courtroom experience.
"There's this kind of ongoing joke that corporate lawyers are scared of courtrooms," he said. "The first time I went in there and was standing in front of a judge, I didn't know who to talk to, I didn't know where to look, and it was incredibly overwhelming, and to go from there to here, to be recognized on behalf of the firm, is just so humbling."
Conn urged others to step up and help with whatever skills and experience they have.
"I can guarantee you that you are far better equipped to do this kind of work than I was when I started, and I look forward to getting more and more folks involved,” he said. “The firm absolutely supports it, and I'm just really grateful to be at a place that this work is not only tolerated, but it's encouraged."
Brown, the night's third honoree, represented a former employee of the San Mateo County Transit District who was terminated after reporting workplace discrimination. Her position was eliminated and replaced with a substantially similar position, so she filed a lawsuit claiming workplace discrimination and harassment under federal and state law. Brown joined the case when the matter was referred to Venable by the Federal Pro Bono Project, and he negotiated a settlement of $262,000—a staggering amount for a municipality to hand out in this type of case.
Brown described his work on the case as "an exploration in power for me; a discovery about the power we wield as attorneys, especially young attorneys."
"The judicial system can be scary and complicated," he continued. "To be able to utilize the power that I've been granted as an attorney to help this client get a result that brought her peace is something I truly will never forget."
To end the evening, Hamel, who succeeded Rosenthal as chair of Venable's pro bono committee, recognized his predecessor's contributions to the firm's pro bono program.
"The fact is you carried this program on your back," Hamel said. "You served as a leader, a mentor, a coach, chief litigator. You brought us all to where we are today."
Rosenthal credited the firm's leadership for allowing him to shape Venable's pro bono vision.
"I had a chance to work with lawyers from across the firm," he said. "I had a chance to mentor younger lawyers. And in addition to my billable practice, I had a chance to do a lot of really fun, for me, compelling pro bono work… There were a lot of people I inherited an already very strong program from, and the firm should forever be in debt to those folks."