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For more than a year, the unionized staff at the Center for Family Representation, a New York City legal nonprofit, has been locked in a labor dispute with management over a contract that could pay higher wages and increase job security.
CFR is like many other legal-aid groups, representing thousands of poor families in child-services disputes and, in turn, expecting its lawyers to work long hours handling hundreds of cases. In negotiations, the center’s lawyers and paralegals have been represented by the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, a chapter of the United Auto Workers, one of the country’s largest and most influential unions.
CFR’s management has turned to Winston & Strawn. The white-shoe firm has represented companies in high-profile anti-labor cases in recent years — and even claims to have written parts of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which limited the power of US unions.
Winston & Strawn, staffers have come to realize, also has a seat on CFR’s board.
“As a nonprofit, we are for the people. We’re trying to help people — especially indigent people,” Tiffany Moseley, a staff attorney for CFR, told Insider. “To have a law firm that’s anti-union working for a nonprofit is just unbelievable.”
CFR staffers aren’t alone. At least two other public-defense organizations — the New York Legal Assistance Group and the Children’s Law Center — have relied on anti-union law firms that have seats on their boards to advise them in negotiating against their own staff.
The tension has prompted a broader fight over the scope of the social missions of these nonprofits and the place of wealthy board members whose connections can keep the organizations afloat.
The dispute also highlights how big law firms are compensated for this work and raises questions about whether they’re using pro bono hours to try to defeat or weaken the unions. Law firms often tout pro bono work on behalf of nonprofits in the public interest and can benefit from limited tax breaks for the work. At least one lawyer for Winston & Strawn has used pro bono hours to block public defenders from organizing.
Lawyers at nonprofit legal-aid organizations are unionizing in record numbers
The tension at CFR comes amid a wave of unionization in New York’s legal nonprofits; at least 15 have formed unions since 2016. Membership in the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys has increased to more than 2,500 from 1,000 — a record, according to Alexi Shalom, a union spokesman.
In nine of those organizations, management accepted the unionization after a card check, according to the union. Some organizations, like Queens Defenders, have put up tough fights to block unions from forming, requiring secret-ballot elections by the National Labor Relations Board.
In New York City, public defenders aren’t public employees but are hired by private third parties that contract with the city. Legal nonprofits typically defend people who can’t pay for representation. They also tend to attract younger lawyers and paralegals who see their work as part of a social-justice mission like fighting systemic racism or inequality.
The workload, these lawyers say, is often grueling and can be far less lucrative than at a large firm representing corporations in contract disputes or securing intellectual-property rights. They are also compensated far less than their colleagues at big law firms. Last year, New York City passed a law guaranteeing public defenders pay parity with city lawyers, raising an entry-level attorney’s salary to about $70,000, according to two people with knowledge of the pay scales.
Staff lawyers say it’s ‘disappointing’ that their managers are fighting against the union
As unions have proliferated in recent years, staffers at these nonprofits have been disturbed by their managers’ connections with firms that typically bargain against unions, they said.
One of the main sticking points in negotiations is “just cause” protection, which requires employers to bring their reasons for disciplining or firing an employee before a mediator.
“That’s very important, especially for me, being a person of color,” Moseley said. “There were situations when people of color may have been fired back in the day because of no reason.”
While no staffers outright accused the boards of having conflicts of interest, they said they felt that working with law firms perceived to be anti-union was against the broader mission of their work.
“It’s really disappointing, and I think it reinforces my desire to have a better understanding of who is on our board and then what values they represent,” said Laura Diewald, a staff attorney at the Children’s Law Center. The organization, which counts the Epstein Becker Green attorney Marc A. Mandelman as a board member, hired another lawyer at the firm, Corey P. Argust, to represent management. The Children’s Law Center, Argust, and an Epstein representative didn’t return requests for comment.
When staffers at the New York Legal Assistance Group announced their intention to unionize in 2019, their management hired Proskauer Rose, which represents sports leagues and Columbia University in their fights against unions, to try to stop the union from forming.
“The fact that they hired Proskauer for some of their union-busting — there’s someone on the board from Proskauer — was just a huge slap in the face,” said Alice Hindanov, a paralegal at the nonprofit. “How does this line up with NYLAG’s mission? It doesn’t.”
Joseph Baumgarten, a co-chair of Proskauer’s labor-and-employment department, is on the New York Legal Assistance Group’s board. Baumgarten has a long history of representing management, but he has made some missteps, including getting dropped by the NHL for its handling of a discrimination case.
Proskauer hasn’t represented the New York Legal Assistance Group since staffers voted 152-29 to unionize in 2019. The firm didn’t respond to a request for comment. Louis DiLorenzo at Bond, Schoeneck & King now represents the organization in its labor negotiations.
Lawyers say there’s no conflict in representing management
At CFR, staffers expressed frustration that the board hadn’t reached out to staffers to hear their concerns and appeared to be siding with management.
“At the end of the day, I would hope that the board at my office would want to value the staff’s voices,” one CFR employee, who asked to remain anonymous, told Insider. “You would hope they’d be a little bit more neutral.”
A representative for CFR didn’t return requests for comment. However, the Winston partner on the nonprofit’s board, Jeffrey L. Kessler, has worked on the side of sports unions, including the National Football League Players Association and the National Basketball Players Association, his biography says. He is also representing the US women’s soccer team in its suit alleging that US Soccer underpays its players compared with male players.
“Winston & Strawn is proud of its pro bono association with the Center for Family Representation and I am personally honored to be a CFR Board member,” Kessler said in a statement. “There is no conflict between the work I do for professional athlete unions and the work of CFR, which provides free legal and social work services to families and youth and promotes social justice for Black and brown families.”
William G. Miossi, a Winston partner who represents CFR management in labor negotiations, told Insider he was approached by the board to represent it and denied that there was a conflict of interest in the firm’s relationship with the nonprofit. The organization has hired at least one other firm, Seyfarth Shaw, to negotiate against the union.
“Jeff serves as a volunteer board member to a charitable organization that provides legal services to needy people in New York City. We provide them some legal advice in connection with their labor contract for free as part of their commitment to legal services,” Miossi said. “Jeff Kessler has nothing to do with the bargaining strategy or tactics. If you were to ask him tomorrow, he wouldn’t have any idea what is going on.”
Big law firms use pro bono hours to show their social cachet
Staffers at some legal nonprofits expressed concern that their organizations were spending funds fighting the unionization efforts. While it’s unclear whether New York Legal Assistance Group and the Children’s Law Center are paying for their legal help, CFR hasn’t paid for Winston & Strawn’s work.
“We are providing legal services to CFR 100% pro bono,” Miossi said.
The American Bar Association encourages lawyers to work at least 50 pro bono hours a year, “with an emphasis that these services be provided to people of limited means or nonprofit organizations that serve the poor.” There is no requirement about using the hours for labor-related causes.
Aside from some limited tax breaks, the value that pro bono work gives big law firms is in social capital. Nonprofits like CFR have board members at Credit Suisse, New York University and Columbia Law, and other white-shoe firms.
Law firms often tout their pro bono work in marketing materials. Winston & Strawn, for instance, touts its work helping women get equal pay and protecting immigrants’ rights. In one case, it partnered with the unionized Legal Aid Society in a suit against the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey over an LGBTQ-discrimination case.
“It makes you sick either way,” the anonymous CFR staffer said of Winston & Strawn’s pro bono work on behalf of the nonprofit’s management, “but I would prefer they’re not paying for it, especially while we argue about money.”
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