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A Proud History

From the Firm’s inception, challenging pro bono work has been a cornerstone of our practice.

In 1803, Judge Elijah Miller, the founder of the Firm’s Auburn, New York office, defended the first Native American tried for the murder of a white man in the State of New York. Despite heavy public disapproval, Judge Miller provided the defendant with free legal representation. Early in his legal career, Judge Miller’s law partner, William Henry Seward (later Secretary of State under President Lincoln), represented a recently released ex-convict accused of stealing six cents worth of fabric, and twenty years later, again on a pro bono basis, took on two cases that established the insanity defense in American law, despite intense public outcry against the defendants, one of whom was an African-American man who had killed a farmer and his family. In that case, although Seward lost the trial and the jury rendered a death sentence, Seward obtained a reversal from the Court of Appeals, through what legal historian Charles Warren describes as Seward’s “brilliant defense.” Our history has formed the basis of Cravath’s continued dedication to pro bono work.

We’re proud of this rich tradition, and some of our most groundbreaking pro bono work has been performed by associates. Senior Counsel Robert Rifkind was a second-year associate when he was offered a chance to argue an appeal by The Legal Aid Society. That case turned out to be Miranda v. Arizona, the landmark decision that said the state cannot interrogate criminal suspects without informing them of their right to counsel.

The Civil Rights Movement made the 1960s a particularly exciting time to be doing pro bono work at Cravath. Senior Counsel Fritz Schwarz was an associate when he wrote the Supreme Court brief on behalf of the Congress of Racial Equality’s Freedom Rides protesting segregated buses; he also helped the New York City Police Department rewrite its guidelines on police use of force. Cravath attorneys represented students at Jackson State, a black college where police killed two students and injured 12 during student riots. Bruce Bromley, the former head of Cravath’s Litigation Department, was one of 244 lawyers whom President John F. Kennedy called together to form the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The Firm also helped to create New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.

This legacy is carried on in the historic pro bono work Cravath attorneys have performed in the years since. In 1989, Robert Joffe, our former Presiding Partner, argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of black and women firefighters in Birmingham, Alabama. The case served as a catalyst for the Civil Rights Act of 1991, and Cravath has continued to work on behalf of these plaintiffs for over 25 years. Furthermore, several of our attorneys litigated an action charging that the U.S. Census was systematically undercounting people in dense urban areas, minorities in particular.