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Encouraging pro bono efforts by in-house counsel

In a novel effort to support the provision of pro bono legal services by in-house counsel, the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission, co-chaired by Justice Ralph D. Gants and David W. Rosenberg, convened the In-House Counsel Pro Bono Forum at the Supreme Judicial Court earlier this year.

The goal of the forum, attended by nearly 120 attorneys and legal professionals, was to promote pro bono work by corporate legal departments in light of the significant and unmet needs for pro bono legal services across the state. Justice Gants provided opening remarks, explaining why in-house pro bono legal services is so critical:

“With so many in need of legal services, and with cash-starved legal services offices having to turn so many away, the need for attorneys to provide pro bono legal services has never been greater. Because our proud tradition in Massachusetts of providing pro bono legal services is more firmly entrenched in law firms than among attorneys serving as in-house counsel, we hosted the forum to encourage our legal department colleagues to join in this tradition and show them how they can help.”

Engaging untapped resources in corporate legal departments

In-house pro bono initiatives have grown over the past decade from a small number of promising efforts to hundreds of formal programs at companies of all sizes.

For instance, AT&T, Coca Cola, General Electric and Merck have formed alliances with community organizations or implemented policies designed to encourage and reward pro bono participation.

Backed by the resources and support available from organizations like Corporate Pro Bono, a program established by the Pro Bono Institute and the Association of Corporate Counsel, many companies have embraced the important role that their in-house attorneys can play in addressing the pro bono legal needs of their communities.

Participation by Massachusetts in-house counsel in pro bono work unfortunately has lagged behind many other states.

As noted at the forum by Esther Lardent, president and CEO of the Pro Bono Institute, the relatively low participation rate among Massachusetts in-house attorneys is partially attributable to an historical lack of transactional opportunities and weak infrastructural support.

In addition, the relatively small size of many Massachusetts-based companies’ legal departments can make starting a pro bono program seem out of reach.

Addressing the benefits and challenges of corporate pro bono

The forum brought together in-house counsel and corporate pro bono experts to discuss the benefits and challenges associated with in-house counsel pro bono programs.

The forum began with a discussion between Lardent and Marc Gary, executive vice president and general counsel of Fidelity Investments, in which Lardent presented a simple message: It’s easy to become involved in pro bono work.

She also explained that the barriers in-house attorneys worry about are increasingly nonexistent. For example, although many companies are concerned that their lawyers won’t be covered by malpractice insurance, most pro bono referral agencies provide coverage to their volunteers.

Gary, who has established significant pro bono programs in two legal departments — first at BellSouth Corp. and more recently at Fidelity — emphasized the importance of the general counsel’s support and active encouragement. He described the positive impact that pro bono engagement has on in-house legal teams and the wide array of projects to which his team has been exposed.

According to Gary, pro bono matters also provide valuable opportunities for in-house attorneys to develop new skills that ultimately benefit the company.

A panel of in-house counsel — Kathleen McGrath (senior corporate counsel at Liberty Mutual), Dorothy Varon (assistant vice president and counsel at MassMutual Life Insurance Co.), William O’Brien (pro bono chair of the ACC’s Northeast chapter), and moderator Eve Runyon (director of Corporate Pro Bono) — delved into the specific obstacles in-house lawyers face in starting and sustaining successful pro bono programs and addressed potential solutions.

McGrath, who directs Liberty Mutual’s pro bono program, emphasized the importance of creating a firm-wide policy, encouraging all levels of the legal department — attorneys, paralegals and assistants — to pursue pro bono work, and offering a variety of programs to align with their interests.

She also discussed the benefits of Liberty Mutual’s partnership with outside counsel (Mintz Levin) on pro bono matters, including exposure to a variety of projects, the support of an established program, and guidance from law firm attorneys often more experienced in pro bono matters.

Varon described her experience developing MassMutual’s successful pro bono program in Housing Court in western Massachusetts and positioning its pro bono effort as a component of the company’s overall role in the community.

O’Brien highlighted various ACC initiatives offered to in-house counsel as discrete and manageable pro bono opportunities, including the ACC’s Mediation Program and its Clinic in a Box, a program that will next be offered at Mintz Levin in October.

Lastly, Housing Court Judge Dina Fein, special advisor for Access to Justice Initiatives in the Trial Court, urged in-house attorneys to reach out to the courts, law firms and legal services organizations in order to take advantage of the many ways that in-house attorneys can extend legal services to unrepresented parties.

To facilitate those connections, the forum included a reception and pro bono fair at which in-house counsel met with representatives of nearly 20 court and legal services programs from across the state. (For a booklet containing information on the programs, contact the authors of this article.)

According to forum attendee Lance Levy of Applied Discovery, the forum supplied the motivation to become more involved in pro bono legal work:

“It hit home that there is a deep need for in-house counsel to get involved and that we possess significant skills and experience that will be an asset to and provide meaningful results to these groups. Additionally, it’s easy to get involved, can fit within your schedule — as little as three hours a year — and there’s a built-in support system to walk you through, answer your questions and assist you throughout the process.”

Key takeaways and early successes

Three central themes emerged from the forum: (1) in-house attorneys are critical to meeting the demand for pro bono legal services in Massachusetts; (2) the key to starting an in-house program is simply to start; and (3) there are many opportunities that are discrete in nature and lend themselves to participation by in-house counsel.

Several forum attendees have already taken steps to establish or enhance their in-house pro bono programs. One example is Rocket Software of Newton, which has a four-attorney legal team. According to Stephanie Long, Rocket Software’s assistant corporate counsel:

“The forum gave us some great leads on how to get a pro bono program started in our company. It was exactly what we needed to prove to us that even though we practice in-house, we can still find ways to be useful even if it’s not in any of our more common areas of practice. It was exciting to learn that there are organizations willing to give us all the specific subject-area training we’ll need to be able to represent their clients. While we are still in the very early stages of pro bono involvement as a company, as a result of the forum we formed an informal pro bono committee and have begun laying the groundwork for a program that can expand as the company grows.”

Another example is Fidelity Investments, which recently established a pro bono program and has since expanded it to include new projects. According to Jill Grossberg, senior vice president and deputy general counsel:

“Since the forum, Fidelity has been working on a new partnership with the Volunteer Lawyers Project’s housing clinic. We’ve made an initial six-month commitment to have a number of volunteers from Fidelity’s legal department staff the clinic once per month.”

The forum was an important first step in what the Access to Justice Commission expects will be steady progress toward higher participation in pro bono programs by local in-house counsel to help meet the significant need for pro bono legal services across the state.

For more information, contact the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission, the Pro Bono Institute and Corporate Pro Bono, the ACC’s Northeast chapter or the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Pro Bono & Public Service.

Susan M. Finegan (smfinegan@mintz.com) is a partner in Mintz Levin’s Boston office, practicing in the litigation section. She currently serves as chair of the Pro Bono Committee. Outside the firm, she is active on the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission and the Supreme Judicial Court’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono Services. Colin G. Van Dyke (cgvandyke@mintz.com) is an associate in the Boston office, practicing in the environmental section. He is a member of the firm’s Pro Bono Committee and coordinates Mintz Levin’s participation in the Lawyers Clearinghouse’s Massachusetts Clinic for the Homeless.

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