The Need for Pro-Bono Programs at Law Firms

July 31, 2015

meeting boardroom professionalsLisa Dewey, DLA Piper’s full-time Pro Bono Counsel and Partner since 1999, advises and represents individuals and public interest organizations across the country and around the world. Recently, she spoke about the need for pro bono programs at law firms and DLA Piper’s overall strategy.

Why should law firms (of all sizes) implement a pro bono program?

The obvious answer is that it’s the right thing to do, and it’s our ethical obligation as lawyers. As such, law firms should do everything they can to support pro bono work and, when possible, to create an infrastructure that supports those efforts and the projects that have the most local impact.

Our dedicated pro bono program ensures lawyers at our firm get the support and training they need and that we focus on projects  where needs are greatest and where our lawyers can have the most impact. Dedicated staff members serve as liaisons to local communities to learn where the gaps and needs are – which is how we create many of our signature projects.

Over the years, there have been great examples of the efforts stemming from those projects, but I’ll share two. In Washington, D.C., our first organized signature project was working with the Children’s Law Center, which had a need for attorneys to work on adoption cases. We helped people who needed assistance going through the adoption process who were dealing with a lot of red tape and delays in the court system.

Another example ties into family law and housing cases, a huge issue nationally. Specifically in the San Francisco area, we’ve worked for years on domestic violence cases, particularly with immigrant women who are trying to find safety and leave their abusers.

What made you decide to become DLA Piper’s full time pro bono counsel after working as a successful commercial litigator for the firm?

I’ve been firm’s Pro Bono Partner for 16 years. Before that, I was working on several pro bono matters at the firm in addition to my normal duties. I saw a few other firms with dedicated pro bono professionals and noted the tangible benefits from that approach. I thought I had the necessary skills to lead those efforts, so I approached the firm’s senior leadership.

It’s been a wonderful experience, and of course the firm has grown exponentially over the years. Having a strategy to ensure we’re making the biggest impact, along with a full-time team, allows us to be proactive in developing projects, instead of just reacting when people bring them to us. This helps us best deploy the amazing resources of DLA Piper.

How do you best identify and procure pro bono opportunities to ensure widespread participation (among partners, of counsels, associates, and administrative staff) across DLA Piper’s offices across the nation?

In addition to myself, DLA Piper is fortunate enough to have pro bono attorneys across the country who support regional offices. We all work to identify and procure pro bono opportunities, so we have a good feel for what’s going on and we have great relationships with local groups and legal aid organizations.

How do you ensure other lawyers receive the training, mentoring, and staff support they need to give pro bono clients high-quality legal services?

We’re fortunate to have the infrastructure to provide the necessary support to all of our lawyers and we have a symbiotic relationship between our firm and legal aid providers and other organizations. Additionally, when you have a group of attorneys who have been part of a certain kind of case, you can introduce new lawyers to the older guard to create networks within DLA Piper and leverage the experience our lawyers have gathered over time.

What do you consider two of most innovative things DLA Piper has done through its pro bono program?

In 2005, we created New Perimeter, DLA Piper’s global pro bono initiative. It’s a non-profit with its own advisory board, which provides great input on projects. We focus on serving under-served regions around the world. Our approach has a big impact and allows attorneys to spend time on the ground working with our partners for often weeks at a time. It’s another way that we’re proactive and it helps us build trust among partners, which can take time.

Another example is the work we’ve done to create national projects where our lawyers around the country can come together to work on projects and support one another, such as the Clemency Project, our work with veterans, food banks, juvenile justice, intimate partner violence and with groups to improve educational outcomes for children at risk.