For many years, formal pro bono programs were the bailiwick of attorneys in private practice. In-house counsel volunteered on their own, but not until the 1980s and 1990s did legal departments launch formal pro bono programs. Even then, there were not many. In 2000, the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) and the Pro Bono Institute (PBI) formed Corporate Pro Bono (CPBO) to support and promote pro bono in the in-house community. Since then, interest in in-house pro bono has flourished, and, with CPBO’s assistance, legal departments have found solutions to many of the challenges to in-house pro bono. Now, hundreds of legal departments of all sizes and many ACC chapters are engaged in pro bono, with more and more launching pro bono programs.
The rise of in-house pro bono can be attributed to a number of factors: the distressing gap between those desperately in need of legal assistance and the available resources (a number of studies have found that 80% of low-income persons with a serious legal problem are unable to secure legal help); the ethical obligation to provide service that is at the core of every lawyer’s professional identity; the desire to use one’s skills and expertise to make the world a better place.
Organizing pro bono programs for lawyers in legal departments can also enhance critical aspects of department operations. Pro bono engagements offer legal staff the opportunity to broaden and vary their workload, interact with different people inside and outside of the legal department, and make use of their legal skills for positive impact in the community, which can increase employee engagement, support team-building and improve morale.
Pro bono engagement also provides professional development opportunities for lawyers and legal staff to hone skills that are applicable to their work for the company, including negotiation, leadership of a team effort, and working effectively with partnering organizations. Plus, the involvement of a company’s legal department in pro bono service adds value and breadth to the company’s corporate social responsibility profile and activities, as well as improves the quality of life and stability of clients and the community at large, creating a better business climate.
Engagement in pro bono for in-house counsel, whether through a pro bono project organized by their legal department, hosted by an ACC chapter, or coordinated by a local services provider, may include a wide range of topics, and involve everything from representing low-income individuals and the organizations that serve them, to children, victims of domestic violence, refugees, veterans, the elderly, and more. A few examples:
Attorneys at The Pep Boys-Manny, Moe & Jack work with organizations in Philadelphia to assist clients in obtaining their birth certificates, which enables them to receive benefits, obtain medical care, or find a job. Exelon Corporation lawyers have teamed with Sidley Austin in Chicago on a complex death penalty appeal. In-house counsel from Barclays, Citigroup, and Goldman Sachs have advised small business owners in New York, working with a local legal services organization.
In-house pro bono has come a long way in 15 years, but the need for more pro bono services remains great. A broad range of opportunities exist that meet the needs and interests of legal departments and ACC chapters. In addition, there is a wealth of resources available to in-house counsel interested in pro bono work.
This article originally ran as part of the Legal Executive Institute.
Eve Runyon is the Project Director of Corporate Pro Bono. Before joining CPBO, Runyon worked for more than five years as a lawyer at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher, & Flom in Washington, D.C., where she represented major U.S. electric, gas, and pipeline companies in matters before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and federal and state courts.
While at Skadden, she participated in the Skadden Loaned Associate program, a seven-month externship program with Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia. At Legal Aid, she served as lead counsel in child custody, child support, domestic violence, landlord tenant, housing, and public benefits cases. Runyon graduated from the University of Virginia and Yale Law School.