Jim Rocap and Brian Benko will be honored on June 18 at the Celebration of Leadership Reception with the 2013 D.C. Bar Pro Bono Attorneys of the Year Award. The prestigious award goes to members who have demonstrated excellence, achievement and commitment to providing legal services to low income and disadvantaged individuals in the District.
"...each small victory confirms on a very personal level for each of my clients that he or she is not powerless, but instead deserves the respect that comes with the new benefits achieved." - Jim Rocap, Pro Bono Attorney of the Year
Jim Rocap is a partner of the Washington office of Steptoe & Johnson LLP, where he also serves as the chair of the firm’s Public Service committee. His dedication to pro bono service is evident throughout his 30 years of legal practice. Jim acted as lead attorney in two separate representations of death-row inmates—one of which he worked on for more than 24 years! Additionally, he serves on the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless Board, served on the committee for the Senior Lawyer Public Interest Project of the DC Bar Pro Bono Program and is a Board member of the DC Access to Justice Foundation.
“An experience like this changes your perspective....” - Brian Benko, Pro Bono Attorney of the Year
Brian Benko is an associate in the Washington, DC office of McDermott Will & Emery LLP and a member of the firm’s Employee Benefits Practice Group. Since joining the D.C. Bar less than four years ago, Brian has taken numerous pro bono disability cases where he has secured much-needed resources for his clients. He has also advised other McDermott attorneys on more than half-a-dozen disability related pro bono cases. Brian serves as the Young Lawyers Network (YLN) representative to the Board of Directors of the D.C. Bar Foundation and provides pro bono services to local DC legal service organizations in his primary area of legal expertise—employee benefits law.
Jim and Brian took a few moments to discuss their thoughts about their pro bono experiences. Here’s what they had to say:
On learning from their pro bono clients:
Brian: Through pro bono service, I have learned a lot about myself, our neighbors in need and our community. Pro bono service can provide a valuable new perspective on life and your legal practice. This was the case with one of my past social security disability clients. The client was a 21-year-old woman with a 71 IQ and severe learning disabilities. When I found out that we had won the appeal, the client and her 2-year-old son were about to become homeless. The first two times I told her the good news she did not understand me. The third time I knew that she understood me because she simply said thank you. The victory prevented her and her child from being homeless during winter. An experience like this changes your perspective on a lot of things.
Jim: While I have been involved in two death penalty representations during my career (one successful and one tragically not), my “DC” focus for the past 20 years has been providing legal services to those who are homeless. I enjoy the direct client contact that comes with these matters for many reasons, not the least of which is the profound respect I have developed for my clients. Their struggles are monumentally fundamental, on a daily, monthly and yearly basis. Many are challenged by mental health disability, physical disabilities, or both. They daily must deal with a society, government structures and programs, and a judicial system that is certainly intimidating and on occasion uncaring. And yet they survive where, I am fairly certain, I would not.
On growing through their pro bono service:
Jim: I have fought for scores of clients, for their right to housing and disability benefits, for compensation for injuries they suffered that would not interest a contingent fee practitioner, for protection from consumer fraud, and more. I am proud to say that, for many or perhaps most of my clients, I have been able to make a real difference in their quality of life, even though the “awards” have been small. After all, when you have nothing, anything more than nothing is a victory. Equally important, each small victory confirms on a very personal level for each of my clients that he or she is not powerless, but instead deserves the respect that comes with the new benefits achieved. That latter message is, as they say, “priceless”. And the more of us within our legal community that take up the challenge to help the unrepresented achieve that respect, the better we all become.
On firm support for pro bono work:
Brian: I am fortunate to be on a team with so many talented attorneys at McDermott Will & Emery. Making a difference in the community is part of the firm’s mission. The firm emphasizes the importance of providing exemplary service to all clients regardless of whether or not they can afford to pay a fee. I consider it a privilege to have the opportunity to be a member of a team that is changing lives around the world.
On the critical importance of pro bono service:
Jim: The statistic I can’t get out of my mind is that more than 90% of the poor in the District of Columbia with legal needs are unrepresented. Having been involved in providing pro bono legal services for most of my professional career (I am now 63), I have a pretty good sense of the generosity of the DC legal community: it is very generous, with both time and money. Our Bar can be proud that it ranks at the highest levels throughout the country in its commitment to and provision of pro bono legal services. But despite that generosity, as the 90% statistic resonates in my mind, it is clear that we have only been able to scratch the surface of what needs to be done for the unrepresented and underrepresented in the District of Columbia.
Brian: The demand for pro bono legal services is greater than the supply of attorney volunteers. This means that there is still a lot of work to be done. Fortunately, the DC legal community is committed to reducing the demand for pro bono legal services by changing public policy and increasing the supply of volunteers through hard work and dedicated service. Securing access to justice for all can only be accomplished one person at a time.
Brian A. Benko is an associate in the Washington, DC office of McDermott Will & Emery and a member of the firm’s Employee Benefits Practice Group. Mr. Benko advises clients on a variety of employee benefits matters related to tax qualified retirement plans, executive compensation arrangements, and health and welfare plans. He has published many articles on employee benefits issues for publications such as The Tax Lawyer and The ERISA Outline Book. Mr. Benko serves on the Editorial Advisory Board for three pension manuals published by Thompson Publishing Group: The 401(k) Handbook, the Pension Plan Fix It Handbook and the Guide to Assigning and Loaning Benefit Plan Money.
James E. Rocap III is a partner in the Washington office of Steptoe, where he is a member of the Litigation Department. Mr. Rocap’s practice focuses primarily on complex civil litigation, with a particular emphasis on large insurance coverage disputes. Throughout 30 years of legal practice, he has developed rich experience in complex business tort litigation and white-collar criminal defense matters. He is a #1 Ranked Attorney in Chambers USA 2008, America's Leading Business Lawyers; DC Insurance: Insurer Firms. Mr. Rocap is one of the attorney authors of the Manual for Complex Insurance Coverage Litigation. He previously served as the Chair of the Sections Council of the DC Bar.
The D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program recruits, trains and mobilizes volunteer attorneys to take pro bono cases serving individuals living in poverty who are at risk of losing their homes, their livelihoods, and their families. The Pro Bono Program also assists small businesses and community-based non-profits needing legal help. Each year the Pro Bono Program touches the lives of more than 20,000 D.C. residents. Did you know that the Pro Bono Program is funded entirely by voluntary contributions? Consider supporting our work by making a donation today.