by Ben Kennedy. Reprinted with permission from the Winter 2011 edition of the William & Mary Alumni Magazine. Photo by Ellis Vener, courtesy of the magazine.
In a corner office high above Peachtree Street, Bill Hoffmann '67, J.D. '77 is waiting for a phone call. In this case, it's coming from The Hague in the Netherlands, but it could be Burundi or Sierra Leone, Brazil or just Washington, D.C. But the phone will ring
Hoffmann is pro bono partner at King & Spalding (K&S), Atlanta's largest and most prominent law firm, housed in a shining glass skyscraper in the Midtown district and in 16 other offices in New York, London, Riyadh, Geneva and around the world. He coordinates the free legal work King and Spalding's 800 lawyers do for clients who otherwise would lack representation. He also works with local nonprofit agencies who share his commitment to justice.
"The entire justice system doesn't make any sense if only some people have access to it," says fellow K&S partner Courtland Reichman. "It only makes sense if everybody has equal access to justice. [Hoffmann] cares so much about it because that's what it's all about. It's about making sure everybody gets a fair shake in the legal system no matter what their crime or station in life is. It is a critically, fundamentally important thing."
Since beginning his legal career, Hoffmann has explored whatever realm of law was needed to take care of the underprivileged; his clients, as well, have traveled wherever necessary to find justice.
There was a time, though, when Hoffmann preferred basketball.
"I was a basketball fanatic," says Hoffmann of his college years. "I wasted away my college experience playing pickup basketball when I should have been studying."
He had come to Williamsburg from Albany, Ga., the center of peanut country in the United States, where Hoffmann also developed an interest in politics at the family dinner table. When the time came to choose a college, he had planned to study government.
"I wanted to go `north' to college," Hoffman, a Kappa Sig, says. "So that's why I went to William & Mary."
Soon, plans changed - although Hoffmann still gathers his basketball friends whenever the Tribe comes to Atlanta.
"My favorite courses as a freshman were in philosophy," he says, "so I decided to major in philosophy. I really liked it. I was influenced by my professors and I decided I wanted to be just like them."
He went on to receive a philosophy Ph.D. at the University of Georgia, during which time he also got married. His first job was at Ithaca College in upstate New York, but options were limited. A friend's husband had just finished law school and suddenly the doors of possibility swung open.
"I've always been a Southerner and I wanted to get back south." The Hoffmanns were off to Williamsburg again.
Returning to William & Mary with his wife, Sally, and a child on the way, Hoffmann buckled down as he adjusted to a different sort of court. At Marshall-Wythe, Hoffmann was No. 1 in his class and editor-in-chief of the William and Mary Law Review. He clerked for a federal judge in Philadelphia for a year before moving to a small firm back home in Georgia. This Atlanta firm is where Hoffmann began to take pro bono cases on the side.
He remembers: "One day I just called up the ACLU of Georgia and said, 'I'm a new lawyer here and I want to do some pro bono work. I'd really like a First Amendment case if you've got one.'
"They probably hung up the phone laughing, because good First Amendment cases are the hardest things to find. A good First Amendment case is like gold."
His earliest pro bono work was obtaining a life sentence for a man convicted of murder and sentenced to death; shortly thereafter he helped reinstate two high school newspaper editors who protested censorship against them.
"I mean, I was a brand-new lawyer," Hoffmann says. "I hardly knew what I was doing, and I think the gods were looking out for me in that I got good results in both cases. That plus the fact that I had good mentors and people to talk to.
"If I were to handle both of those cases today, I would do them a lot differently than I did then. But I probably wouldn't have gotten a better result," he says, smiling.
Any lawyer who cuts his trial teeth on his early pro bono cases eventually finds his time usurped by close working relationships with paying clients in mid-career. Hoffmann, too, spent years cultivating work with K&S clients all over the country - in contrast to his early pro bono work with Atlanta's underserved. He did still manage to take the occasional case.
One prominent pro bono case was that of Daniel Colwell, a promising college football player with a troubling history of mental illness. Unable to commit suicide, Colwell decided to force the state of Georgia to execute him by killing an elderly couple in a Wal-Mart parking lot in 1996. As intended, he was convicted and sentenced to death.
Hoffmann found the case thanks to the Georgia Resource Center, an organization that he today serves on its board of directors.
"We argued that there were errors in Colwell's trial so the jury couldn't adequately consider the evidence," says Hoffmann. "But Daniel was still very schizophrenic. While we were representing him, trying to get him a new trial, he also got a lawyer to represent him to try and get him executed as quickly as possible. One day [Colwell] would take one position and the next day he'd take the other."
A judge - considering which of the two lawyers would represent Colwell in an upcoming habeas corpus hearing - ruled in favor of the other lawyer, while simultaneously continuing to allow Hoffmann and his team access to their client. A month later, Colwell hanged himself in his jail cell.
“[Death penalty cases] are kind of the ultimate in the practice of law in terms of something that keeps you up at night,” says Hoffmann. “You think about it all the time. My mindset is, on one hand, there’s nothing more satisfying and on the other hand more annoying than thinking through a complicated legal issue … It becomes amplified when it’s a matter of life and death, but even if it’s not, it’s something that’s always with you.”
Then, things started to shift yet again.
A major client changed its strategy from litigating its disputes - with Bill handling the expert witnesses for all the cases - to simply settling out of court. Suddenly it was back to the drawing board.
"I thought I needed to go back and find business for my [paying] practice," he says of that time in his career. "Or do I?"
In 2008, Hoffmann proposed to the K&S management that they join in the growing nationwide trend of large firms establishing a full-time dedicated pro bono partner. He also suggested that they name him as that partner. They agreed.
As K&S's pro bono partner, he's also the point man when the firm gets a call they don't know how to handle. When the call came from the Special Court for Sierra Leone, the K&S Washington, D.C., office called Hoffmann. After asking around and realizing none of the other partners wanted to take on the case, he volunteered himself.
The case was of a man who testified against former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, who had interfered horrifically in the Sierra Leone Civil War. Taylor's vice president subsequently sued the man for defamation. Hoffmann successfully assisted a Liberian law firm in defending him against the defamation charges.
His international work also took Hoffmann to Sierra Leone and Rwanda, where he pursued an investigation into witness tampering - an arena of law with which he had no previous experience.
"He's not the sort of person who is interested in being in the limelight," says Sarah Geraghty, a senior attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights. "He's not looking for the `sexy' case or the next case to get him in the newspaper - just the opposite. He takes cases that other lawyers wouldn't take because it's the right thing to do."
"There are many people his age who are sort of settling in and thinking about golfing and vacations and stuff like that," says the Southern Center's Executive Director Sara Totonchi. "Bill is talking about doing election oversight in some remote area of Africa. To hear him talk about it, it's the most exciting thing that he's seen. I've never seen anything like it."
Hoffmann, though, is most proud of winning asylum for a young Afghan client who experienced unspeakable tragedy on his way to the United States.
"A few days after his birth, his mother had a gathering of the women in the village in his home as is traditional there to celebrate his birth," he says, choking up as he tells the story. "There was a Soviet bombing raid of the village at that time and his mother was killed by the bomb. He was being held in his mother's arms -he has pieces of shrapnel in his skull to this day."
The boy's father fled with the family to Iran, but was forced to return to Afghanistan to renew their papers. While back home, his father was killed in a Taliban raid on the town and his sister was kidnapped. Without recourse, the young man fled to Iran and later to the United States, using the services of a human trafficker. Upon arriving at LAX, he turned himself in and was arrested for having forged documents and identity theft.
"Without immigration status here [in the U.S.] - nowadays especially - there's only so far that you can get," says Monica Modi Khant, director of the Georgia Asylum and Immigration Network (GAIN). "You really need representation."
After six separate federal prisons, the Afghan man was preparing to be deported back to Afghanistan when Hoffmann found his case with the help of GAIN, which screens potential cases before matching them up with pro bono attorneys like Hoffmann. Though initially denied asylum based on a technicality, Hoffmann worked to secure "withholding of removal" - the next best thing - and eventually got his Afghan client asylum on appeal. Hoffmann now gets Father's Day cards from his client, now working in Atlanta on Oriental rugs.
"When you win [the client's] case, the change that you see in them is immediate," says Khant, executive director of GAIN. "Now they're working; they're getting education. You can see that by helping them with their immigration case, how much that's opened the doors for them. Bill has been one of our biggest proponents from the beginning.""When he talks about his clients, it really is that compassion that comes through," says Totonchi. "It's not just a lawsuit or litigation; it's human lives, and it's people that he cares about. The outcome of whatever happens to that family or that individual in their life is of paramount importance to him. That's abundantly clear in the way he represents them."