The PBEye

Pro Bono As We See It
July 30, 2019

Human Trafficking and the Power of Pro Bono

“When we look at human trafficking, we always
think that it’s far away from us.”

Du Yun

Human trafficking is a global problem but has significant domestic presence in the United States. The volume of human trafficking cases around the world remains astonishingly high and significant complexities exist in identifying victims, obtaining recourse, and understanding the issue. As defined by the Department of Homeland Security, human trafficking is a crime involving the use of force, fraud, or coercion to lure a victim into forced labor or sexual exploitation. It is a global problem affecting every country, including the United States. The International Labor Organization estimates that 24.9 million adults and children across the globe are subjected to human trafficking each year.

At PBI’s 2019 Annual Conference, a panel of experts and practitioners examined the ways pro bono lawyers can be of assistance to those affected by human trafficking through supporting survivors, spearheading critical research, prosecuting offenders, and seeking reparation and damages on behalf of survivors. Betsy Hutson, one of the panelists, was our guest on a recent episode of the Pro Bono Happy Hour. Hutson, a litigator at McGuireWoods*†, has maintained an active pro bono practice focusing on assisting human trafficking survivors. Her work representing Kendra Ross, a victim trafficked within the United States for 10 years as an unpaid laborer, led to an award of $8 million in damages — the largest sum awarded to a trafficking victim in the country. Listen along and let us know what you think. Send your comments, thoughts, feedback, questions, and suggestions to

The Misconceptions of Human Trafficking

As Hutson discussed in MarketWatch and on our podcast, trafficking is obscured by a number of myths. Human trafficking is not the same crime as smuggling and young girls are not the only victims. Moreover, it can be challenging to identify victims of human trafficking. Victims are not necessarily held in locks and chains, and they are commonly reluctant to receive help. They are often not readily apparent or visible to the outside world as the force, fraud, and coercion required to establish a trafficking claim can take many forms.

Resolving human trafficking cases can be tough, not only due to the challenges in identifying victims but also the complications leading to inadequate prosecutions. Many trafficked individuals suffer psychological trauma so great that they are unable to ask for help or even identify themselves as victims. After removal from the situation, a trafficking survivor might be reluctant to participate in an investigation for a variety of reasons, such as fear, shame, a lack of understanding that they have been trafficked, and an emotional attachment to the trafficker. It often proves difficult for survivors to “articulate the complexities of fear, dependence, loyalty, and the myriad of other conflicting emotions that influenced them to remain with their traffickers.”

The Impact of Anti-Trafficking Pro Bono Work

This continued crisis requires large-scale awareness and institutional efforts to combat. The law has served as a central avenue for supporting survivors of human trafficking, as attorneys can represent trafficked people in multiple ways: litigating to obtain recourse for survivors, vacating criminal convictions related to trafficking, providing immigration representation, and more. Over the years, large law firms have provided a variety of pro bono services in this space and even established dedicated, ongoing projects, working with nonprofits like the Human Trafficking Legal Center and Sanctuary for Families to secure justice for survivors. Pro bono projects have included representing survivors seeking to reclaim their lives; conducting research on important trafficking legal issues; and advising and counseling nonprofit organizations serving survivors.

Here are some examples of pro bono work done by major law firms to combat human trafficking:

  • In 2018, attorneys at Duane Morris*† successfully vacated twenty-five criminal convictions for a trafficking survivor, who was trafficked as a teen following a turbulent childhood. The survivor faced deportation to the Dominican Republic and separation from her three children due to misdemeanor criminal convictions which were the direct result of her being trafficked. Due to the efforts of Duane Morris she became free to stabilize her immigration status and provide for her children.
  • In 2017, Weil, Gotshal & Manges*† resolved a novel legal issue and set precedent for trafficking survivors nationwide. A team of attorneys at the firm’s Miami office secured an order from a Florida state court expunging the convictions of a domestic trafficking victim who acted as a “bottom,” forced to recruit and victimize other women in addition to prostituting herself. With assistance from the Legal Aid Society of New York, the Weil attorneys successfully represented the survivor in her petition for expunction. She became the first human trafficking “bottom” to receive expunction in Florida, and likely the whole nation.

From directly assisting survivors to conducting research and policy advocacy, pro bono lawyers can play a large role in actively securing justice for survivors of human trafficking. While many law firms have done notable pro bono work to combat human trafficking, much more can be done. By continuing to establish long-term anti-trafficking pro bono projects and formal partnerships with nonprofits, firms can increase the scale of their impact in the fight against human trafficking.

Have you done pro bono work related to human trafficking? Please reach out to us at and share your experience.

Hat tip to PBI intern Kyle Pham for his significant assistance.

* denotes a Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge® signatory
† denotes a Law Firm Pro Bono Project® member