Pro Bono

Patterson Belknap has a long and proud history of public service, embodied today in our unparalleled pro bono program. Every lawyer at the Firm is active in pro bono work. Since 2004, 100% of our attorneys have participated in pro bono projects every year. By accepting the American Bar Association’s pro bono challenge, we agreed to devote up to five percent of the Firm’s annual billable hours to public service work. The Firm is consistently ranked near the top of The American Lawyer’s annual pro bono survey. Additionally, we were recognized as the 2021 “Pro Bono Firm of the Year” by Benchmark Litigation. Read about our 2020 pro bono highlights in our Pro Bono Year in Review.

At the heart of our pro bono program is a deep commitment to bringing the best possible legal representation to the most underserved, and frequently overlooked, populations. We are extremely proud of the work we do, frequently in partnership with some of the nation’s most respected legal services organizations. Our attorneys work with individual clients daily to resolve legal issues that could otherwise leave them and their families devastated. While these matters are not always widely publicized, our work enables basic necessities of life to be provided to our clients – obtaining shelter for the homeless, ensuring there is access to medical care and food, and giving a voice to our clients in the courtroom and before administrative agencies where public benefits are at risk of being lost.

We are committed to the defense of human and civil rights. Our pro bono work includes the defense of prisoners on death row and work with The Innocence Project. Our attorneys have filed several amicus briefs in the U.S. Supreme Court and federal courts of appeal on issues relating to the “War on Terror.”

To inquire about pro bono assistance, please email [email protected] with your name, phone number, and a brief description of your matter.


  • Patterson Belknap was recognized as Benchmark Litigation's 2021 “Pro Bono Firm of the Year” for our work in Trump v. Hawaii, where we represented a union of federal asylum and refugee officers employed by the Department of Homeland Security who have opposed various restrictions the United States has placed on refugees seeking entry into our country.
  • In October 2018, 2019, and 2020, the New York County Lawyers Association (NYCLA) recognized Patterson Belknap attorneys for their substantial pro bono contributions to NYCLA’s State Central Registry, Clemency, Access-A-Ride, and Veterans Discharge Upgrade projects.
  • The Firm received a #1 ranking nationally in Vault’s 2020 and 2021 “Best Law Firms for Pro Bono” list. The rankings are based on “exclusive insider information from verified employees in the law industry. Each year, Vault surveys thousands of law professionals.”
  • In October 2017, 2018, and 2019, Patterson Belknap was recognized at The Legal Aid Society’s Pro Bono Publico Awards ceremony for its commitment to serving the needs of low income New Yorkers. In addition to recognizing the Firm, The Legal Aid Society honored many individual attorneys with Pro Bono Publico awards.
  • Partner Jonah M. Knobler was honored in October 2019 by Common Cause as a “Defender of Democracy” for “the critical role he played on the pro bono legal team that brought Rucho v. Common Cause,” a lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court challenging North Carolina’s congressional map as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander.
  • In October 2018, Partner Michael S. Arlein received the City Bar Justice Center’s Jeremy G. Epstein Award for Outstanding Pro Bono Service, for his work with clients of the Planning and Estates Law Project (PELP). PELP offers free legal assistance with end-of-life planning, probate, and estate matters to low-income individuals in New York City.
  • The American Bar Association recognized the Firm for its work on the National Center for Access to Justice’s 2016 Justice Index at its 2017 Pro Bono Publico Award ceremony. The Award is presented each year “to honor individual lawyers, law firms, law schools, government attorney offices, corporate law departments, and other institutions in the legal profession that have enhanced the human dignity of others by improving or delivering volunteer legal services to the poor.” Patterson Belknap was recognized for its role in developing the Justice Index, an online resource that scores and ranks the 50 states, District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico on the adoption of best practices for ensuring access to justice and creating incentives for state officials to replicate those practices.
  • In 2017, Patterson Belknap received the New York City Bar Association’s Norman Redlich Capital Defense Pro Bono Award for our active and successful work in capital litigation, as well our dedication to the New York City Bar’s Capital Punishment committee.
  • In 2017, the Muslim Bar Association of New York presented Patterson Belknap with its Champions of Justice Award, which “recognizes an organization that shows an exceptional devotion to social justice and a commitment to pro-bono representation.”
  • In 2016, Partnership for Children’s Rights (“PFCR”) presented Patterson Belknap with the Tom Sobol Award for Excellence in Educational Advocacy. A public interest organization, PFCR provides free legal services to disabled children from low-income families throughout New York City in the areas of special education and children’s Social Security Income disability benefits.
  • The Brooklyn Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project awarded Alejandro Cruz a 2016 Champion of Justice Award for his contributions in the civil rights area and for his work litigating a putative class action under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act on behalf of children with disabilities.
  • In 2015, Patterson Belknap was honored to be the first recipient of The Legal Aid Society’s newly re-named “Honorable Jonathan Lippman New York Pro Bono Publico and Public Service Law Firm Award” for outstanding service to The Legal Aid Society and its clients. In addition to recognizing the firm, The Legal Aid Society honored 17 individual attorneys and one paralegal with Pro Bono Publico awards.
  • MFY Legal Services, Inc. honored the Firm at their 2015 Dinner-Theatre Benefit, recognizing Patterson Belknap’s outstanding contributions to securing access to justice for adult home residents with mental illness, as well as the Firm’s work as co-counsel with MFY in litigating a class action lawsuit in Brooklyn against certain “three-quarter houses.”
  • In June 2015, Legal Services NYC (LSNYC) recognized the Firm with its “Pro Bono Leadership Award.” This award was given to the organization’s top 25 pro bono partners over the past year. LSNYC thanked the Firm for its efforts on the State Central Registry project, which provides pro bono representation to individuals wrongly placed on the New York State Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment. They also recognized the Firm’s contributions to their work regarding student debt work helping low-income veterans to mitigate longstanding student loan obligations.
  • The Brooklyn Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project awarded Muhammad Faridi the TD Bank Champion of Justice Award for his contributions in the capital punishment area and to the runaway and homeless youth class action litigation.
  • In April 2015, the Firm’s pro bono program was profiled in the Spring 2015 issue of Duke Law Magazine, in which it was characterized as a “pro bono powerhouse, one routinely acknowledged as such in national surveys.” The magazine noted Patterson Belknap attorneys’ 11 consecutive years of pro bono participation, “engaging in direct-client representation on such matters as housing, benefits, asylum, not-for profit incorporation, and misdemeanor and criminal appeals and capital cases; in impact litigation in areas affecting civil rights, disability rights, special education, and housing; and in cases involving children and adults with mental illness.”

Good Works

  • The Firm successfully negotiated a substantial settlement agreement with the City of Alexander City, Alabama, on behalf of a class of individuals arrested and jailed for their failure to pay fines and court costs. Patterson Belknap attorneys, along with co-counsel at the Southern Poverty Law Center, brought suit against the City in 2015 for its operation of what amounted to an unconstitutional debtors’ prison. In 2017, the parties negotiated a settlement of $680,000, which includes $500 per day for each class member, plus a substantial service fee for the named plaintiffs.

  • Successfully represented residents in “three-quarter” housing who suffered fraud and abuse by the housing operator. Following an extensive investigative piece in The New York Times, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio formed an emergency task force to investigate three-quarter house operations throughout the city. The class action lawsuit, which was litigated by Patterson and MFY, brought on behalf of all former and current tenants of the operator’s houses, sought relief for class members based on the misconduct detailed in the Times article. The lawsuit asserted claims against the operator and his operation for, among other things, deceptive business practice and unlawful eviction. The Times article discussed the class action and explained how the operator formed new shell corporations to shelter his operation soon after the lawsuit was filed. In May 2017, the Court awarded the full relief we requested, including monetary damages for the class and a permanent injunction barring the defendants from further deceptive actions involving three-quarter houses.
  • Successfully represented The Islamic Society of Basking Ridge (ISBR) in perhaps the most closely-watched case in the country involving Muslim civil rights. The case involved a New Jersey township that, after a four-year public administrative approval process, denied ISBR’s application to build a proposed mosque. In Spring 2016, Firm attorneys filed an action in federal district court on ISBR’s behalf, alleging claims of religious discrimination under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), the U.S. Constitution, and state law. On December 31, 2016, Judge Michael Shipp in the District of New Jersey issued a landmark ruling in favor of ISBR on a motion for partial judgment on the pleadings on the central issue of parking, accepting that the Township’s admissions constituted discrimination under RLUIPA and separately that their conduct was unconstitutional. In May 2017, Bernards Township and ISBR signed a settlement agreement, in which the Township must pay $3.25 million to ISBR and must allow ISBR’s mosque application to proceed.
  • Firm attorneys presented “Employment Law for Nonprofits and Small Businesses” for The Legal Aid Society’s 2015 and 2017 CLE Pro Bono Training Programs.
  • Representing five veterans who have received “other than honorable” discharges in a pilot pro bono program to assist veterans of recent wars in upgrading the terms of their discharge from the military services. Such discharges can have a serious negative impact on veterans’ lives, including denial of medical and GI Bill benefits. Negative discharges of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan often result, at least in part, from undiagnosed or misdiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury. On behalf of these clients, Patterson Belknap attorneys prepare submissions to the Discharge Review Boards of the relevant branch of the military and, if necessary, before the Board of Corrections of Military Records.
  • Representing a group of runaway and homeless youth in New York City in a class-action lawsuit demanding that the City provide proper shelter. Each night, nearly 4,000 youth aged 16 to 20 sleep on the City’s streets. The current shelter that the City provides is woefully inadequate, leaving thousands of youth homeless, while also failing to transition the youth to more stable living arrangements. The Complaint alleges that these failures violate the NY Runaway and Homeless Act, which requires youth bureaus to provide a shelter bed to each homeless youth.
  • Co-sponsoring a pro bono project with the New York County Lawyer’s Association (“NYCLA”) to represent individuals seeking to expunge listings on the New York State Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment (the “SCR”). There are hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers on the SCR. Most of the people listed on the SCR were never permitted the opportunity to contest their listing. Once a person's name is on the SCR, she may be denied employment in a variety of fields, including child care. Patterson Belknap attorneys represent clients in their efforts to have the listings expunged from their records. In January 2015, the New York State Bar Association named NYCLA the winner of its 2014 Bar Leaders Innovation Award for Large Bars in recognition of the SCR Pro Bono Project. The State Bar called the SCR project an “excellent example of an innovative program” that serves the community. The project was incubated at Patterson Belknap under the leadership of the Firm’s Co-Chair, William F. Cavanaugh and several associates. 
  • Successfully represented a group of New Orleans students with disabilities in a suit against the Louisiana Department of Education. In this class action, the Plaintiffs allege that the students have been denied their right to receive a fair and appropriate education and that the State has directly caused this by failing to exercise their duties under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. In January 2015, Patterson Belknap attorneys, along with co-counsel from the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Southern Disability Law Center, and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, reached an agreement, which includes provisions related to training and technical assistance for New Orleans schools, as well as ongoing monitoring and additions to the charter renewal and extension process that aims to ensure that all schools are ready to serve students with disabilities. These efforts help to ensure that hundreds and hundreds of low income children with disabilities in New Orleans will receive the education and services the law is supposed to provide for them.
  • Annually mentor and coach a team of students from Flushing High School in the Annual Metropolitan Mentor Moot Court Competition and the New York State High School Mock Trial Tournament. Contributions to this program have spanned more than two decades and hundreds of Flushing High School students have benefited from Patterson Belknap attorneys’ commitment and dedication.
  • Partner with Volunteers of Legal Services Unemployment Insurance Advocacy Project to secure unemployment insurance benefits for clients who have been unduly denied them.
  • Successfully represented the family of a reverend who, relying on the “terrorism exception” to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, sued the government of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, alleging that it abducted him, confined him to a political penal-labor colony, tortured him, and, ultimately, killed him. After the North Korean government failed to appear, our client asked the district court for a default judgment. The district court denied this, saying that they failed to produce “first-hand evidence” of what happened to the reverend. On appeal, our attorneys filed an amicus brief and presented oral argument before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The Circuit Court reversed the lower court, finding that our client presented sufficient evidence for the district court to enter a default judgment against North Korea.
  • Working with the Legal Aid Society to appeal the misdemeanor convictions of various defendants allegedly involved in aggressive begging, indecent exposure, and shoplifting on the grounds that the charging instruments were insufficient and/or that the courts failed adequately to inform the defendants of their jury trial rights.
  • Developing an employment contract designed to retain a CEO of a not-for-profit whose purpose is to make sure long-term residents can stay in their neighborhoods despite the pressures of gentrification. This tax-exempt entity, a community based development corporation, was established to revitalize certain communities riddled with dilapidated and abandoned buildings. However, as many areas of New York City over the past several years have experienced substantial economic growth, this entity has expanded its supportive and social service programs to residents facing displacement. Core efforts include affordable housing development and preservation as well as asset building initiatives such as homeownership and small business development.
  • Act as employee benefits counsel to Advocates for Children, a group that helps children obtain the educational help they need to succeed. Work includes preparing detailed retirement plan documents and advising on plan distribution and employee communication projects to encourage retirement savings. Advocates for Children of New York works on behalf of children who are at greatest risk for school-based discrimination and/or academic failure due to poverty, disability, race, ethnicity, immigrant or English Language Learner status, sexual orientation, gender identity, homelessness, or involvement in the foster care or juvenile justice systems.
  • Representation for low-income seniors in connection with the preparation and execution of new estate planning documents, such as wills, powers of attorney, and healthcare advance directives.
  • Acted as volunteer guardians ad litem in the New York City Housing Court, assisting vulnerable litigants, primarily elderly clients who are in rehabilitative settings, in danger of losing their homes because of their inability to effectively advocate for themselves in Housing Court proceedings.
  • Representation of MFY Legal Services, Inc. in two separate lease expansions of its headquarters office space.
  • Representation of a wrongfully convicted individual in post-conviction proceedings seeking a new trial based on DNA test results.
  • Representation of class of children in foster care with developmental disabilities in suit alleging that government agencies have failed to provide required services and have left children in unduly restrictive placements. Class certification decision affirmed by the New York Court of Appeals.
  • Assistance to a non-profit organization based in Brooklyn, CAMBA's Small Business Services program, to promote economic revitalization and growth by providing local micro-entrepreneurs with the skills and resources they need to compete in the modern market place.
  • Assistance to victims of political oppression seeking asylum in the United States.
  • Guardian ad litem representation of mentally disabled clients in connection with numerous civil court proceedings.
  • Representation in Alabama inmate appealing a death sentence.
  • Criminal appeals for defendants referred to the firm by legal service providers.
  • Participating in Volunteers of Legal Service Inc.’s innovative pro bono program, the Children's Project, which matches firms with hospitals in New York City. At Metropolitan Hospital in East Harlem, collaborate with doctors, social workers and staff at the hospital to assist low-income families with sick children who are particularly vulnerable to unhealthy housing conditions, terminated public benefits and inappropriate special education placements. The program objective is to improve health outcomes for children through the provision of pro bono legal services.
  • Representation of nearly 100 former tenants of two buildings located in Chinatown that were destroyed by one of the largest fires in recent New York City history. On behalf of these clients, the firm has filed multiple actions against the owners and operators of these buildings in order to recover damages for lost personal property. The firm secured an important victory; working with the New York Attorney General's Office to recover the tenants’ unlawfully withheld security deposits, with some tenants having received refunds of several thousands of dollars.
  • Litigated and reached settlement agreement in class action on behalf of children in foster care in New York City who are kept confined in acute psychiatric hospitals for prolonged periods of time despite medical determinations that they should be discharged. Settlement provides relief to the entire class and will help ensure that children in foster care in New York City are not subjected to confinement in acute-care psychiatric hospitals for any longer than is medically necessary.
  • Advised a legal aid service organization in structuring a settlement in favor of an indigent Mexican woman and her U.S.-born citizen daughter in such a way so as most efficiently deal with U.S. federal withholding tax. They also advised more generally as to the tax consequences of the settlement proceeds to both the Mexican mother and her U.S. citizen daughter.
  • Assisted an indigent young woman who had been living in a NYC shelter in ceasing IRS Collections action. The woman was unable to open a bank account for fear of an IRS levy; the resolution with the IRS will enable her to open a bank account, and, once she is on firmer financial footing, work with the IRS toward an equitable settlement of her tax liability.
  • Advised nonprofit organization in community development space on the process of establishing a donor-advised fund (DAF) to raise capital for affordable housing and community development projects around the country. The firm participated in strategic planning discussions and provided guidance on various DAF models, obligations of sponsoring organizations and alternative fund structures for reaching donors and impact investors.
  • Represented former grocery store owner in sales tax assessment by the New York State Department of Taxation. The client’s business had failed years earlier and he had no means to pay the growing interest and penalties. The firm was able to secure an offer of compromise for the client at a fraction of the amount assessed.