A $577 million bill that Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan signed into law Wednesday is a victory for four historically Black colleges in the state—and a Kirkland & Ellis partner who spent a dozen years on the matter.
“It’s the longest-running case of my career,” said Michael D. Jones, who in 2009 began pro bono work on a federal lawsuit that resulted in the bill signing. He said he had no idea his work with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights would take this long.
The Maryland General Assembly passed the legislation this year, clearing the way for a decade of annual payments of nearly $58 million to Morgan State University, Coppin State University, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.
To reach the bill-signing milestone Jones pursued the case through trial, settlements, and legislative and gubernatorial hurdles. He chalked up 7,780 pro bono hours, and other lawyers at Kirkland added 30,000, putting the firm’s total contribution at 37,780.
“This is a huge, huge step to bringing the case to a close,” Jones said of the signing. “It is the first case of its kind where the federal government was not the lead, but instead a large law firm.”
A group of black alumni had kicked off the case in 2006, alleging that nearby public universities siphoned off students with competing academic programs, seriously undercutting the historically Black colleges. A 2013 federal court ruling found that Maryland had maintained a “dual and segregated education system” in violation of the Constitution.
Subsequent efforts to reach an agreement with Maryland on the underfunding for the colleges dragged on for years. Hogan initially argued that the state’s financial situation prevented a large-dollar payout. He proposed settling for around $200 million over a decade.
But the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education—a group of alumni and supporters—argued that the $577 million sum was more in the range of a similar 2002 case in Mississippi.
Maryland lawmakers initially approved a multimillion-dollar bill to fund scholarships, faculty, academic programs, and marketing at the four universities. But Hogan vetoed the measure, and then the state legislature shut down early last year because of the Covid pandemic, temporarily derailing the effort.
The legislation passed again this year by a margin that assured an override of a gubernatorial veto. Following Hogan’s signature, Jones said the parties are negotiating a final settlement agreement in order to begin payments in fiscal 2023.
Kirkland’s legal work, and some $2 million the firm contributed over the years, was vital to the lawsuit’s successful conclusion, said Jon Greenbaum, chief counsel for the Lawyers Committee.
“I’ve spent more hours on this case than any other in my career,” Greenbaum said. “It’s been several thousand hours on a long and difficult road.”
Attorneys are required, as part their professional responsibility, to provide pro bono legal services. The American Bar Association suggests at least 50 hours annually. Large law firms routinely pair up with non-profit legal service providers such as the Lawyers Committee, whose founding in 1963 was suggested by President John F. Kennedy.
Such pro bono work as aiding immigrants, death row inmates and others unable to afford legal assistance is a visible part of law work even though firms have little diversity in their ranks. Most firms have few Black and other minority partners or leaders, a situation underscored in the 2020 National Association for Law Placement report findings that only 2% of firm partners were Black.
The Lawyers Committee works with a number of firms to pursue about 50 to 60 cases a year, Greenbaum said. The committee’s latest annual report, for 2017, said law firm attorneys contributed some 50,800 pro bono hours, worth $32 million, to its cases.
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