Pro Bono Community Profiles: The SAILS Project, Washington, DC

The pro bono community often discusses the benefits of Emeritus rules to gain more advocates in the national pro bono effort. What we do not often discuss, however, is how best to transition retired or soon to retire attorneys to become regular and consistent members of the pro bono community. The DC Bar Pro Bono Program and the DC Access to Justice Commission have created an excellent model for law firms and legal service organizations to work together to achieve a comfortable, meaningful and effective approach to expanding legal services for those most in need. 

For the past year, 11 law firms in theDistrict of Columbia have participated in the Senior Attorney Initiative for Legal Services (SAILS) Project. The project recruits local law firms to internally support and mobilize their senior lawyers right before or shortly after they begin to wind down their law practices. 

The idea of focusing on senior lawyers came about during a 2003 DC Bar panel discussion entitled “Doing Good after Doing Well.” The panel was organized after the DC Bar recognized the changing demographic of its membership as many prepared for retirement. These lawyers were looking for post retirement volunteer opportunities in the community, and the idea that retirees or those preparing to retire could contribute their services through pro bono was born. 

Although retired attorneys can provide pro bono through legal services organizations on an individual basis in D.C., such a model requires a legal services program to provide significant support. This support is often challenging for the programs to provide due to limited resources. Through the SAILS project, however, law firms are encouraged to incorporate within their transition policy a structure to support senior attorneys doing more pro bono work. In the initial stages of SAILS, the focus has been on working with the firms to set up solid infrastructures for support within the firm to facilitate senior lawyers transitioning into taking more pro bono cases. 

One of the first SAILS projects was an initiative undertaken by Arent Fox, LLP to assist DC veterans in need. The Arent Fox veterans service team recruited attorneys throughout the firm to offer their services to homeless or low-income veterans in a variety of legal matters. In other SAILS initiatives, legal services organizations have identified areas of need and will work with the firms to develop projects that coordinate and support attorneys interested in participating. 

The SAILS project’s goal of incorporating supportive pro bono policies into local law firm phase down or retirement plans is gradually taking hold in theDistrict of Columbia. As Monika K. Varma, Executive Director of the DC Pro Bono Program stated, “A lot of firms have policies for what happens at the retirement stage for attorneys. SAILS aims to integrate something into that policy that encourages senior lawyers to stay involved with the firm through pro bono and supports their efforts to help the most vulnerable members of our community.”

Do you have a simlar program in your area? Please share your experience in the comments below.

~Adrienne Packard

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