The Washington office of Skadden Arps is partnering with LivingSocial, Northrop Grumman and Cisco Systems, as well as a trio of local legal aid groups, to start a pro bono initiative aimed at helping low-income D.C. residents.
Attorneys at major law firms have long worked with legal aid groups to assist pro bono clients, and corporate legal departments are increasingly building pro bono programs for in-house lawyers. But this initiative, called the Impact Project, marks the first time Skadden is formalizing a partnership with the companies and legal aid organizations — Children’s Law Center, Legal Aid Society of D.C. and Bread for the City — in tandem.
The project is structured so that lawyers from the firm and the companies can join one of three teams — domestic violence, guardianship (guardians are court-appointed lawyers who look out for the interest of children in divorce, child abuse and other proceedings) or housing — and be trained by staff attorneys from legal aid organizations in those areas of the law. Skadden’s technology specialists are also building an intranet that will have training materials, relevant laws and sample documents that can be accessed at any time.
The initiative is open to all of Skadden’s 280 attorneys in D.C., as well as in-house lawyers for the three companies. Northrop has a 150-member legal team in Falls Church; LivingSocial has 12 attorneys in its District headquarters and Cisco has 20 lawyers based out of its Herndon office.
“The whole effort is about bringing critical mass to these big problems ... Instead of bowling alone, we could make a major impact by bringing lawyers together in a concerted effort,” said Cliff Sloan, the Skadden partner who is coordinating the project.
Sloan was previously general counsel for Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive and publisher of Slate, which is owned by The Washington Post. LivingSocial’s chief executive and co-founder, Tim O’Shaughnessy, is the son-in-law of Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald E. Graham.
The idea for the partnership was born several months ago, when Fred Goldberg, a partner in Skadden’s tax group, floated the notion of marshalling the law firm’s resources and manpower with the expertise of legal aid organizations that have long worked with children and families in the community.
“We didn’t want to re-invent the wheel,” Sloan said. “We talked to many legal service providers to get their expertise. It was clear the three areas of greatest need related to children and families were domestic violence, guardians and housing — people threatened with eviction.”
LivingSocial, Northrop and Cisco represent a varied slice of companies in the Washington region, Sloan said, and it is the first time all three businesses are forging a formal relationship with an outside law firm to train and match up lawyers to work on pro bono matters.
Mark Chandler, Cisco senior vice president and general counsel, said the scale of the effort should make it more feasible to pursue cases that otherwise might seem too daunting because pro bono attorneys “get called away to do urgent things and there’s not much backfill capabilities in a corporate legal office.”
“By creating structure, Skadden is making it easier for lawyers inside a company to participate in pro bono projects, it opens up a much more efficient avenue to do that,” Chandler said.
The number of people seeking legal assistance for evictions and domestic violence skyrocketed during the recession while funding for many legal aid organizations dwindled, creating what many advocates called a crisis in legal services.
The Impact Project is one of many efforts by the D.C. legal community to respond to the crisis. Sloan serves on a task force created by Legal Services Corp., the Washington nonprofit that distributes federal grants to civil legal aid groups, to come up with innovative strategies to deal with the lack of legal representation for low-income people.
The Corporate Pro Bono Project, an initiative started by the Pro Bono Institute — a D.C. nonprofit that helps corporate legal departments and law firms coordinate pro bono efforts — is seeing more interest from companies that want to increase pro bono legal work. At the institute’s annual conference last year, lawyers from more than 80 companies packed a training session on how corporate legal departments can partner with legal aid groups and law firms to match pro bono work with their attorneys’ skills and interests.
“This isn’t driven by business interests, it is consistent with the way the company thinks about itself, culturally,” said Jim Bramson, general counsel at LivingSocial. “We’re a local business and primarily focused on establishing a framework for local commerce and relationships within local communities, so figuring out ways to be engaged is something the company is supportive of. The legal department, like the rest of the company, is looking for ways to be involved.”