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Mitch Ettinger: Pro bono is ‘part of Skadden’s DNA’

August 11, 2016

Mitch Ettinger is a seasoned litigator who leads Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom’s DC office. He’s been involved in many high-profile cases throughout his career, including serving on President Bill Clinton’s legal team and as a chief prosecutor for the United States Air Force.

But those aren’t the experiences he talks about when you meet him. Instead, he shares his passion for giving back to the community.

“When you’re an attorney in DC you’re often dealing with multi-million dollar cases for large corporations. But then you see a kid who can’t breathe because of mold in their apartment, and it brings you back down to earth,” he says. 

It’s not just his personal commitment. Pro bono service is “part of Skadden’s DNA,” Mitch says.

Skadden has been a long-time partner of Children’s Law Center in almost every area of our work, whether it’s advocating for children caught in the middle of contested custody cases or making sure landlords fix unsafe housing conditions that threaten children’s health. 

In 2012, Skadden formalized this partnership by designating Children’s Law Center as one of three DC organizations it supports through its pro bono “Impact Project,” which focuses on housing, domestic violence and children’s well-being.

“When we were looking for someone to partner with, we learned quickly it had to be you,” Mitch says. 

“Children’s Law Center is the premier entity for children’s rights. You represent children whose voices can’t be heard, and our lawyers love those cases. It’s also a chance to stand up in court and be litigators, which is great experience for our attorneys,” he says.

Mitch believes that pro bono service is not just the right thing to do – but also makes great business sense. 

“We attract top notch lawyers who come to the firm because they know we emphasize pro bono service,” Mitch says.

“I remember Joe Flom, one of the founding lawyers at the firm, talking about service to the community. He encouraged pro bono service and believed in it,” Mitch says.

Joseph Flom also started the Skadden Fellowship, a program that supports 25 of the best and the brightest law school graduates each year to work in legal services organizations. Children’s Law Center has hosted several Skadden fellows over its 20-year history.

Mitch says that Skadden is committed to helping the most underserved members of the communities where it works. Last year, Skadden lawyers in DC dedicated almost 30,000 hours to pro bono service in areas from children’s health to death penalty cases.

“We do a broad scope of pro bono work and it reflects the breadth of skills and interests we have at the firm,” he says.

To marshal this amount of volunteer effort, the firm builds pro bono service into every practice area and counts work on pro bono cases toward an attorney’s billable hours.

“This is a business and we expect you to be productive for your clients, but Skadden also gives its lawyers plenty of room to take on pro bono cases. In some years, lawyers work on a pro bono case that will take a lot of time and that’s okay. They know our expectations – whether it is fee for service or pro bono client – we do not cut corners. That tone is set at the top.”

“We dedicate the same resources to pro bono cases that we do for fee for service matter. Our clients get a full team, and the necessary amount of attention. It’s the Skadden Way,” Mitch says.

Looking to the future, Mitch recognizes that more effort is needed to meet the enormous needs he sees for legal help. About 80 percent of families who appear in DC’s family court don’t have a lawyer when they face life-altering legal decisions, such as which parent should get custody of a child.

“The legal system is daunting. The processes and procedures are daunting. You are emotional. The stakes are high and you have fear of the unknown. You shouldn’t have to go it alone in such a complicated process,” he says.

“The number of hours that are needed [to close the justice gap] is beyond the ability of any one lawyer or any one law firm. But we all have an obligation to the community…and we can make a dent in the need,” he says.

At Children’s Law Center, we couldn’t agree more.

And to recognize Skadden’s commitment to meeting the needs of DC’s children and families, Children’s Law Center will recognize the Skadden law firm with its 2016 Pro Bono Champion award.

The Pro Bono Champion award will be presented September 20 at the Helping Children Soar benefit, held at the Kennedy Center. This year’s benefit will celebrate Children’s Law Center’s 20th anniversary – and the many supporters and champions who have helped us change the lives of DC children along the way.

More details about the benefit are on the Children’s Law Center website.