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Corporate Law Departments

The push for in-house pro bono

Thomson Reuters Institute  Insights, Thought Leadership & Engagement

· 6 minute read

Thomson Reuters Institute  Insights, Thought Leadership & Engagement

· 6 minute read

With an increased emphasis on corporate pro bono activity, how can corporate law departments get started?

While the past year presented many challenges for in-house pro bono engagement, depressing participation by in-house volunteers across many industries, pro bono by corporate law departments remains strong.

With the exception of 2020, legal staff at law departments have been increasing their participation in pro bono legal activities. Corporations large and small have been partnering with legal services organizations and law firms as part of an effort to impact communities and drive systemic change.  In addition, last year’s renewed focus on racial justice initiatives and a greater emphasis on environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) topics, has led many departments to get even more serious about their commitments.

“While 2020 impacted the ability of many departments to maintain pro bono participation across the department, many corporate law departments deepened their commitment to serving those in need.  In fact, we’ve seen an uptick in the number of legal departments interested in creating a formal pro bono program,” says Eve Runyon, President and CEO of the Pro Bono Institute (PBI), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit focused on pro bono initiatives. “We also have seen an increase from already-established corporate pro bono programs in identifying opportunities that specifically support racial justice.”

These projects include everything from criminal justice issues to voting rights, and, as an added bonus, they support minority-owned businesses with their legal matters. While the American Bar Association (ABA) doesn’t require attorneys to perform pro bono work, they strongly encourage those with a bar license to do so. So, with all the momentum of pro bono goodwill, how does a corporation get started or expand its already existing pro bono work? Further, how best can corporations support their attorneys and measure their success.

How to start your corporate pro bono program

If your organization wants to start a corporate pro bono program, what’s the first thing it should do? Going from an idea to launching the program, naturally has a few steps in between. Initially, you may want to do some research. The wheel has already been invented and there are many resources that can help you when starting your journey.

Support from the top — First, PBI’s Runyon says, having support from the top of the organization is mandatory. “You need a general counsel or a chief legal officer (CLO) that is visibly supportive of legal staff engaging in pro bono activities.” It is also important to think about what your legal staff would be interested in doing and what opportunities are available in your community. Community legal needs in urban San Francisco, for instance, may differ from those in Bentonville, Arkansas, the headquarters of Walmart.

Professional liability insurance — Another key element is thinking about the infrastructure you will need to support and sustain a corporate pro bono program. One issue that often gets overlooked is the need for professional liability or legal malpractice insurance for your volunteer attorneys, Runyon cautions. “Malpractice insurance shouldn’t prevent anyone from participating in pro bono, but it is a question that needs to be addressed at the beginning. Fortunately, there are several options available to legal departments,” she explains.

pro bono
Eve Runyon, President and CEO of the Pro Bono Institute

Corporations can partner with legal service providers that have insurance policies that extend to volunteers. Another option is to secure liability insurance that  covers pro bono work through a traditional provider or through the National Legal Aid & Defender Association. If your company already has an insurance policy, Runyon says you can ask to add on a pro bono rider; an insurance policy provision that adds benefits to or amends the terms of a basic insurance policy to provide additional coverage for your volunteer attorneys.

Find projects that interest your staff — Find out what your attorneys are interested in doing and then match those desires to the legal needs of the community. “Some of the areas we see in-house departments have great engagement with include immigration law, supporting veterans, and working with nonprofits, children, and the elderly,” Runyon says, adding that she encourages departments to start by surveying their legal staff to see which areas their interest lies, and then to do the same with local legal service providers to match those interests with current needs.

It is also important to check in with your corporate social responsibility team, if you have one, to better understand what the company does holistically that relates to philanthropy and community engagement.

Of course, another key to success is understanding what support your attorneys will need to ensure they have a meaningful experience and that the clients they assist receive great services. This will not only increase interest in volunteering but retention as well. “It isn’t uncommon for lawyers to indicate initially they are interested in pro bono work, but then worry they don’t have the skills to provide competent representation,” Runyon notes. For example, a transactional lawyer may know very little about asylum law; however, this can be remedied by understanding the educational needs of your volunteer attorneys and providing the tools they need for effective representation. These tools may include training, access to experts and resources, mentors, and the opportunity to work in teams.

Measuring success in your corporate pro bono programs

The benchmark for success in a corporate pro bono program differs from how law firms measure success because law firms generally track effectiveness by the number of work hours logged. In a corporate setting, the benchmark is less concrete.

Runyon says one way to measure the success of a corporate law department’s pro bono efforts is to follow PBI’s guidelines and the Corporate Pro Bono Challenge® initiative,  which sets an aspirational goal of 50% pro bono participation by legal staff, lawyers, and support staff alike. Another way to measure success is simply by how your organization wants to define it based on your initial goals and objectives. You can use surveys or other metric tools to polls your volunteers, or maybe track volunteer satisfaction, employee morale, or increased teamwork. You can also look at how many clients your group serviced, the result of the representation, and whether it is positively impacting the lives of those around you.

As our world continues to evolve and change, the need for legal services, especially by those among underrepresented communities, cannot be overstated. As attorneys, we have the honor and privilege of promoting justice and helping others gain access to that justice. Let’s do our part to ensure access to justice for all.

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