Jenner & Block

Associate Ishan Bhabha Discusses Washington DC Pro Bono Work

Ishan K. Bhabha is an associate in the litigation department and a member of the Appellate and Supreme Court Practice Group in the firm's Washington, DC office. He has worked on several pro bono cases through the firm's arrangement with the Seventh Circuit.

Q: What kind of pro bono work do you do at the firm?  (Describe individual cases or the programs that you are involved in that provide a pipeline of pro bono work to the firm).
My primary pro bono work has been criminal appeals that I’ve received through the firm’s arrangement with the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.  These cases involve appellate briefing followed by an oral argument. They provide associates with an incredible opportunity not only to hone legal research and writing skills — often on surprisingly unique and complicated issues of criminal law and procedure — but also to then get up in court and argue the case in front of Seventh Circuit judges.  Although the panels always graciously recognize that the lawyers have taken on these cases pro bono at the invitation of the court, that does not mean their questions are any easier by any stretch.  So, taking one of these cases forces you to bring your absolute “A game” and be on your toes throughout the briefing and argument.  

Q: Describe one or two of the most significant pro bono cases you have worked on while at the firm. 
Ishan: The most significant case I have worked on was a Seventh Circuit habeas appeal concerning a state murder conviction.  In short, our client was convicted of murder after a bench trial during which the judge, in pronouncing guilt, made clear that he was basing the conviction on his own suppositions as to what had occurred as opposed to what the evidence actually showed.  Our client had raised this argument multiple times over a 10-year period in various state and federal proceedings and received no relief.  In our appeal to the Seventh Circuit — essentially our client’s last shot — we argued that a conviction based on evidence outside the record violated basic principles of due process.  The Seventh Circuit agreed and ordered the state to retry our client or release him.  The state opted to retry the case (and Jenner & Block lawyers in another office started preparing for trial), but the US Supreme Court then granted the state’s petition for certiorari, and the case is currently pending before the Supreme Court.  Apart from forming a relationship with the client and feeling a sense of accomplishment at working hard for him, with some positive results, this case also exposed me to literally every level of the judicial system in both the state and federal spheres.  This was a fascinating experience from that perspective, and one I will never forget.

Q: Why is it important to you to do pro bono?
Ishan: First and foremost, I think it’s important to do pro bono because it’s easy to forget how unbelievably privileged we as lawyers are, not only personally, but also given that we have the tools to work for justice and fairness within legal structures that are often complex and intimidating for those not versed in the law.  Pro bono work is thus an opportunity to utilize our skills and experience for those less fortunate, who may well have valid claims but are unable to articulate them in a way that is cognizable in court.  I think a second clear benefit is that pro bono work allows you to have myriad professional opportunities that might be difficult to gain through paid work.  Not that paid work isn’t often also very satisfying intellectually, but understandably, clients may want lawyers with greater seniority to handle tasks such as arguing in court or negotiating directly with the other side.  These opportunities are plentiful in the pro bono realm and, combined with the first reason I mentioned, make pro bono a wonderful thing to spend one’s time on.

Q: How has Jenner & Block supported you in your pro bono practice? 
Ishan: Jenner & Block has been extremely supportive of all aspects of my pro bono practice.  Principally, given that my interest is in appellate argument, the firm’s program with the Seventh Circuit provides multiple and easily-accessible ways of getting interesting criminal appellate arguments.  As I saw from one of my cases that developed into a much larger matter, moreover, the firm does not consider the costs associated with seeing a pro bono case through to completion, but rather invests (financially and otherwise) in it as much as it would in any other case.

Q: How has pro bono helped you professionally?
Ishan: Again, I have had many professional experiences — principally three appellate arguments in two years at the firm — that I know I would not have received through my everyday paid work. 

Q: What would you tell others about your experience doing pro bono?
Ishan: It’s a hugely important part of my practice, something I hope to continue throughout my years as a lawyer and something everyone should do to the extent they can!

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