The past few years have seen a positive trend in pro bono: an increase in in-house counsel participation. While this is great news, especially given the rising legal needs of low-income clients, there are still barriers, both perceived and actual, to in-house departments doing pro bono work. These challenges, however, can be overcome to further increase corporate participation in pro bono.
The challenges to in-house pro bono include the following:
Partnerships with legal services providers and law firms can address these challenges.
While people often equate pro bono work with litigation, there are pro bono opportunities through legal services nonprofits that utilize a transactional skill set. These include, for example, assisting 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations with business law issues (such as contracts, nonprofit formation, and intellectual property) and helping tenants facing eviction proceedings negotiate settlements with their landlords.
There are also many legal services providers around the country that offer limited-scope pro bono opportunities. Even if an attorney only has four hours of available time, there are meaningful ways to assist those in need. An example of this is the legal advice clinic model, where attorneys conduct client intake and provide brief legal advice on a range of issues. These types of clinics also often have opportunities for attorneys licensed out of state or non-attorney staff to work with clients on intake and screening.
Partnerships can also address the logistics and support issues, as legal services organizations often provide training, mentorship, and malpractice coverage.
In short, the best practice for a successful in-house program will likely be to partner with legal services providers that meet the interests and time constraints of their attorneys, and that allow them to provide services in their areas of expertise, or that provide them the necessary training and support.
Best practices for a successful program:
One example of a project that has proven to be a good fit for corporate counsel is the Housing Negotiation Project (HNP), a limited-scope project of The Bar Association of San Francisco's Volunteer Legal Services Program (VLSP). Through this project, volunteer attorneys (including in-house departments) represent low-income individuals and families facing eviction during their mandatory settlement conferences. Representation is limited to settlement conferences only, meaning that the time-commitment is only four hours on a given project day. VLSP provides a CLE training in advance as well as supervision by a staff attorney at each negotiation settlement. Because the skill set needed is truly negotiation, not litigation, this opportunity is a great fit for transactional attorneys. By donating just a few hours of time, attorneys volunteering with this project may be able to keep someone housed and off the street.
There is a great deal of unmet legal need on the part of low-income and homeless individuals, many of which involve basic human needs such as shelter, child custody, restraining orders, and debt collection. Attorneys, including those in-house, have the skill sets to make a meaningful impact on the lives of those in need by doing pro bono. Reach out to legal services providers and other partners in your area – in-house departments can make a powerful impact in their communities through pro bono work!
Andrea Fitanides is the Supervising Attorney of the Volunteer Legal Services Program of the Bar Association of San Francisco (VLSP)'s Community Organization Representation Project (CORP) and the VLSP Pro Bono Manager. Andrea joined VLSP as the Supervising Attorney of CORP and in July 2009 she expanded her role and took on additional responsibilities for volunteer recruitment and program development as Pro Bono Manager. Additionally, Andrea was appointed to the State Bar of California's Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services for a 2012-2015 term. Prior to joining VLSP, Andrea was a litigation associate at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, LLP. She received her B.A. in philosophy at Claremont McKenna College and earned her J.D. at the UC Berkeley School of Law (Boalt Hall).
To find legal services providers in your area, visit http://www.probono.net