In-house lawyers take on pro bono work


Freddie Mac attorneys Luise Welby, left, and Andrea Bridgeman, working pro bono with Legal Services of Northern Virginia, help a man with a dispute over his cable bill in Fairfax. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Capital Business)
May 6, 2012

Eighteen months ago, Capital One invested $25,000 to have dozens in-house lawyers and IT staff develop a product to digitize thousands of legal files at 40-plus legal aid groups in Virginia — giving lawyers looking for pro bono clients a way to review cases from their homes or offices.

The product, called Justice Server, is now in final beta testing and slated to go live by the end of the year, thanks in part to a $170,000 boost from area law firms that will go toward buying computer equipment for legal aid groups. McLean-based Capital One is now formalizing a pro bono program for its 70 attorneys, for the first time applying metrics and goals to what used to be an informal process.

Capital One is part of a growing number of corporate legal departments that are funneling resources to address an ever-increasing need for legal services as funding to legal aid groups dwindles.

In-house attorneys have historically gotten their hands on pro bono cases through legal aid groups or law firms on an individual basis, often without systematic backing from their employers. Now that model is changing, with several major corporations such as DuPont pushing to create more structured programs for attorneys and legal staff to do pro bono work by allocating company resources and personnel to handle client calls and paperwork, and setting benchmarks for how much time should be spent doing pro bono projects. (Capital One suggests 20 hours a year; at DuPont, it’s 2 percent of total work time).

“It adds a little bit of structure and helps facilitate people’s instincts to help,” said Sheila Cheston, vice president and general counsel of Northrop Grumman, which started its pro bono program last year and is now finalizing guidelines for employees. “A lot more people would like to be involved but didn’t know how to go about doing it, and didn’t know what the rules were.”

More employee engagement

Company-sanctioned programs not only help lawyers make an impact in their communities, but also drive employee engagement, professional development, recruitment and retention, said Freddie Mac Managing Associate General Counsel Luise Welby. Many in-house attorneys deal primarily with transactional law, and pro bono work gives them a chance to broaden their practice.

“It’s a good way for attorneys to keep fresh and make connections in a broader way,” Capital One General Counsel John Finneran said. “Our associates feel better about the company and are more engaged if they also have a way to express their personal desire to give back.”

The phenomenon in some ways mirrors the rise in prominence of the in-house legal department.

“It used to be legal departments were viewed as a place for people who couldn’t cut it a stressful law firm,” said Esther Lardent of the Pro Bono Institute, the Washington nonprofit that works with corporate legal departments and law firms to coordinate pro bono efforts.“That has changed. Now you have lawyers in legal departments who are enormously respected and powerful, particularly given changes in the legal marketplace. They are very much in the driver’s seat there ... You see in-house legal communities beginning to focus on being thought leaders and action leaders in diversity [and other corporate initiatives], and now you see it happening in pro bono, too.”

In 2002, the institute began what it called the Corporate Pro Bono project, which brought together corporate counsel to increase pro bono efforts. At the time, only a handful of companies had formal programs. Last month, at the institute’s annual conference, lawyers from more than 80 companies packed a training session meant to teach legal departments how to partner with legal aid groups and law firms to best match pro bono work with their attorneys’ skills and interests.

“The need for pro bono help is only going to grow, and we’ve just begun to see what legal departments can bring to the table,” Lardent said.

Catherine Ho covers law and lobbying for Capital Business, which she joined in 2011. She was previously a reporter at the Daily Journal in Los Angeles, covering LA civil courts and labor and employment law.
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