Pro Bono for Business Lawyers: Is it Always Transactional?

Guest Blogger Allyn O’Connor is Assistant Staff Counsel for the ABA Business Law Section.

Ask a business lawyer about pro bono, and generally she will tell you about working with nonprofits. The truly committed business lawyer seeks out nonprofits that serve low-income communities or individuals. He volunteers to address one or more of the organization’s legal needs. He may help obtain tax-exempt status, review and negotiate contracts, handle real estate transactions, and take care of intellectual property matters. She may handle these matters discretely or as a volunteer general counsel. Some business lawyers prefer to volunteer in a for-profit context, handling the legal needs of low-wealth entrepreneurs and very small businesses.

Most business lawyers, however, have one thing in common:  an inability to find enough pro bono opportunities to match their skills and experience.

Or do they?

Business lawyers possess a useful and unique skill set. They are resourceful. They frequently deal with large, layered bureaucracies. They understand not just a client’s motivations, but also those of the party on the opposite side of the table. They are advocates for their clients every day . . . not in court, but in the private sector or in front of government agencies. And above everything, business lawyers are good negotiators and very, very good listeners.

It turns out these skills are ideal to assist individual clients who are overwhelmed navigating the processes and systems that have become a part of daily life for the poor. A homeless Chicago day laborer, for instance, may have no idea how to go about collecting his past-due wages. A business lawyer is the ideal person to locate the Illinois Department of Labor wage claim application, help the client complete and submit it, and to explain the wage claim process.

Business lawyers are intuitive. They pick up on issues quickly and are experienced at identifying areas of a matter ripe for compromise. They know and understand the language and responses that resonate with other parties.

InSan Francisco, business lawyers have worked well as volunteers for the Courthouse Landlord/Tenant Project organized by the San Francisco Bar Association’s Volunteer Legal Services ProgramThe Project is a limited scope representation program providing free legal services to pro per litigants facing detainer settlement conferences. VLSP Supervising Attorney Cary Gold describes business lawyers as ideally positioned to help. “They know the client’s objectives and what the other side will go for,” she says. Gold supports the volunteers with information about the law behind a forcible detainer action. Business lawyers are results-oriented problem-solvers, reflects Gold. Lawyers from firms and in-house settings have been ideal volunteers.

Business lawyers also have been very effective on the most sensitive matters. Many large law firm attorneys have volunteered to help Bet Tzedek Legal Services assist survivors of Nazi forced labor schemes during World War II. Elderly clients eligible for pensions, reparations or other benefits from Germany or other European countries frequently need help completing applications and preparing appeals. Business lawyers have made excellent volunteers. They are gifted with a quiet, clear and non-confrontational communication style. They ask open-ended questions and listen patiently as clients recount a painful and traumatic period in their lives.

Jeffrey Katz, a Boston lawyer who sits on the board the Lawyers Clearinghouse on Affordable Housing and Homelessness says, “Instead of scouring the earth for transactional pro bono projects, we’re trying to educate corporate attorneys to take on non-litigation pro bono matters even if they don’t fit within a particular view of corporate work. There’s a lot out there. There’s a lot that they can do.”

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