CRAWL, WALK, RUN: Building Corporate Pro Bono Programs

March 24, 2016

Corporate Pro Bono Challenge logoCherry blossoms were budding along the National Mall in Washington DC, and just a few blocks away, so were ideas about developing and maintaining world-class corporate pro bono programs.  Once the exclusive domain of law firms, more corporate legal departments are developing their own programs to build their teams, stretch their attorneys and deploy the unique skill sets of the legal department for the community good. Corporate legal departments, large and small, gathered at the 2016 Pro Bono Institute Conference the week of March 21st to discuss best practices in managing a pro bono program and to celebrate the good work and volunteer hours contributed in the pursuit of justice and the representation of those in need.  Some department pro bono programs were in their infancy, with representatives on the cusp of launching programs.  While other departments, with more established programs, discussed how to increase the impact of existing programs, expand globally and revitalize engagement across the department.  All in attendance celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Corporate Pro Bono Challenge, an initiative that allows legal departments to identify, benchmark and communicate their support for pro bono services.  During the conference, energy and discussion revolved around the following topics:

Signature vs. cafeteria pro bono programs & events.  Early conversations kicked off around the goals, scope and vision of a department’s pro bono program.  Does the program align with the company’s overall objectives and/or its corporate social responsibility initiatives? Perhaps your organization has a commitment to families and children; accordingly, should the legal department limit its pro bono skill-based volunteering along the same lines? Some departments that were closely aligned with corporate initiatives sang the benefits and time savings achieved when non-profits and programs have been pre-vetted through the larger organization.  But, shared another leader, another option is to “let the needs of your local community” influence the scope of your pro bono program’s mission and the selection of projects.

Many departments have “signature” pro bono events (e.g. day-long clinic) or specific organizational partners that often fell in line with CSR initiatives.  Some departments have supplemented their signature pro bono programs with a “cafeteria program” where multiple opportunities (across topics, community needs and skill sets) were presented to the legal department.   In some departments, attorneys were able to identify “passion projects” or discreet, bite-size tasks for which they’d be excited to contribute their time and skills; for this type of pro-bono work, departments were reminded to have a process in place to vet these organizations and to identify any conflicts. Aligning with a CSR program is just one way to approach a pro bono program; many department leaders championed more local causes or “passion projects.”

It Takes A Village. Legal departments are made up of a variety of people—many of whom are not lawyers—and I’d be remiss not to mention the number of attorneys a company may employ who are not in the legal department but sit in compliance, contracts, claims or other functions and divisions.  Much of the conversation revolved around how to engage the village of volunteers throughout the company, including non-attorneys or other professionals in the department.  The conversation also turned to the contributions made by legal department members (attorneys and otherwise) that may not sit at a company’s headquarters but whom are members of the legal department in the field and/or located in international locations.

The corporate pro bono village is not limited to employees at the company, but the landscape of partners that corporate pro bono programs turn to, including: nonprofit organizations and programs, legal service providers, law firms, law schools, bar associations, and corporate counsel organizations like the ACC.  Collaboration, both within the company and with outside partners, was key to successful pro bono programs.

The Importance of the Village Chief.  If there was one mantra heard over and over again, it was this: Success of a corporate pro bono program is directly tied to the manifest support of general counsel. The general counsel can support pro bono efforts in formal and informal ways. One legal department shared that the general counsel requires each of the deputies to report to her, on a quarterly basis, the number of hours and projects each division has undertaken; for this department, pro bono is an element of their annual performance objectives and goals.  In this instance, the department collected metrics and data to showcase their pro bono contributions.  In a discussion about pro bono recognition and communication, many shared the value of receiving personal notes or emails from the general counsel in connection with their pro bono contributions or the pride felt when presented a pro bono award from the general counsel during an all-lawyer meeting.  It’s vital that the GC instills a culture of pro bono along with recognizing and celebrating the value of the pro bono work done within the department.  Rather than good deeds bubbling from below, the responsibility and drive for pro bono must start at the top.

Unable to attend the Pro Bono Institute Annual Conference? Is your department building a new pro bono program? Or, maybe you want to recognize some good work your colleagues are undertaking?  Share your corporate pro bono stories with me at @InHouse_Bern.