Firm Uses Pro Bono Windfall to Create New Scholarship

When members of the Austin office of Fish & Richardson decided to take the case of Mallika Das, their focus was fighting for a basic right Ms. Das had been denied: the right to have an interpreter assist her in casting a vote. The principle was so important to Fish & Richardson partners—and Texas Law alumni—David Hoffman ’04 and Kenneth Darby ’15, and co-counsel David Morris (UVA ’01), that they took Ms. Das as a client on a pro bono basis. After four years of work, they were rewarded with a verdict in Ms. Das’s favor—and an unexpected payment to them by the State of Texas of more than $190,000.

Because Ms. Das passed away before the conclusion of the case, the attorneys had to decide what to do with those funds. As Hoffman described it to Texas Lawyer’s Brenda Sapino Jeffreys, he and his colleagues “wanted something that would last.” That’s why they chose to create the Fish & Richardson Mallika Das Scholarship in Voting Rights at Texas Law, which will “benefit students with financial need and an interest in voting rights.”

Turning part of the financial windfall they realized from their representation of Ms. Das into an endowment to benefit Texas Law students was a natural fit for the legal team, given that Hoffman and Darby are both double Longhorns and Morris earned his undergraduate degree from U.T. Austin. The substance of the Mallika Das case and the generosity of the Fish & Richardson attorneys in distributing the funds they were awarded was the subject of a Texas Lawyer article by Ms. Jeffreys, which we reprint here with permission.

FISH & RICHARDSON SPREAD THE WEALTH WITH $191K FEE IN PRO BONO CASE

By Brenda Sapino Jeffreys 

First published October 10, 2019

What is a firm to do with a windfall of $191,374 in attorney fees from a pro bono case over a voting rights issue?

Recently confronted with that question, Fish & Richardson’s Austin office funded a new scholarship at the University of Texas School of Law and donated to three nonprofits.

David Hoffman, the lead lawyer on the litigation, which ended with a favorable appellate decision for the firm’s clients, said he’s aware of two other times lawyers in the Austin office received attorney fees in a pro bono matter—but neither award was this large.

Pictured left to right: Executive Director of Alumni Relations and Development Liz Hilton ’90, David Morris, Dean Ward Farnsworth, David Hoffman ’04, Kenneth Darby ’15

“It was actually a challenge [figuring out] what to do with this much money,” said Hoffman, a partner who typically handles intellectual property litigation.

The federal judge handling the suit ordered the state of Texas to pay the attorney fees after the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held in 2017 that the Texas Election Code conflicted with Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act because it was more restrictive.

At issue in OCA-Greater v. State of Texas was a Texas law that required that any interpreter assisting a voter with limited English must be registered to vote in the same county. The plaintiffs were the Greater Houston Chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans, and Mallika Das, an American citizen born in India who spoke limited English. In 2014, while voting in Williamson County, Das’s son was not permitted to interpret for her because he was registered in a different Texas county.

Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act says that any voter who requires assistance to vote for “blindness, disability or inability to read or write” may be assisted by a person of their choice.

Hoffman said he and the other lawyers on the litigation team decided to use $100,000 of the awarded fee to establish the Fish & Richardson Mallika Das Scholarship in Voting Rights at the UT Law School for law students with financial need and an interest in voting rights.

“We wanted something that would last,” he said.

The firm, which is based in Boston and known for a focus on intellectual property matters, also earmarked parts of the fee for three different organizations. That included $40,000 for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which helped litigate the suit, $25,000 for the Greater Houston Chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans and $26,374 for Volunteer Legal Services of Central Texas.

The prior two fee awards Hoffman knows about were donated to Volunteer Legal Services of Central Texas. Hoffman said Fish & Richardson’s Austin lawyers take many pro bono referrals from that legal aid group.

Significantly, Hoffman said, the plaintiffs filed the civil rights suit on Aug. 6, 2015, which was the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. The judge awarded the attorney fees four years later.