Harnessing In-House Pro Bono

By: Manasi Raveendran

Manasi Raveendran is a Cybersecurity Attorney with IBM Corporation. The views in this article are her own and do not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

As a graduate of the University of Notre Dame Law School, I was taught to be “a different kind of lawyer.” To me, that means that I always look for ways to give back through pro bono. I think that lawyers have a particular responsibility to use their skill and give back to their communities. Pro bono legal services are more important than ever, as we can see by the aftermath of the current immigration Executive Order from the Republican Administration. In response to the EO, hundreds of lawyers showed up at airports around the country to help. Similarly, in-house lawyers asked, “How can we help?”

In-house lawyers want to give back, but oftentimes they don’t know how. In-house lawyers are an untapped legal resource in a time when the justice gap is as wide as ever. Legal service providers, law firms, and other non-profit organizations should try to harness this resource in their endeavors to do more pro bono.

My first (and current) job out of law school was as in-house counsel. The reason I chose my company was because I knew that they cared about giving back – their corporate social responsibility department was robust and participated in various projects around the world. The legal department also had an encouraging and supportive pro bono program, and I took my first pro bono matter a few weeks into my job. Since then, I have grown in my role, and I now help create and run pro bono programs for other attorneys. In doing so, I have learned a few lessons that other in-house pro bono departments (and, for that matter, legal service providers and law firm pro bono programs) can use in engaging and harnessing in-house pro bono:

  1. No more excuses

Lawyers cite so many reasons for not engaging in pro bono; in-house lawyers maybe even more so. Reasons like: I don’t have the time or the right skills, to I’m not a litigator, and I don’t have my own malpractice insurance. We know that none of these reasons are real reasons for in-house lawyers to not do pro bono. With the variety of time and skill based pro bono programs, clinic concepts and pro bono in a box, and legal service providers holding malpractice insurance for their volunteers, we can knock off these excuses.

  1. Find a sponsor

For any pro bono project, find a senior leader in the department that can champion the cause. Identify the senior leader in the department and approach them to understand what kind of social issues they care about and try to find projects that they will be interested in. Senior leaders can not only provide clout to the project and the pro bono program as a whole, but they will also attract other lawyers in the department and can have more influence over issues such as publicity and funding. If you are a senior leader and you have a pro bono cause in which you are interested, bring it up to management (if you have an established pro bono program) or other senior leaders or pro bono enthusiasts (if you are a small team and might not yet have an established pro bono program) so that you can vet the idea, gather interest, and create a new program or project.

  1. Empower your team

It is important to empower in-house teams to do the types of pro bono projects that they want to do. Similar to the recommendation above on finding a sponsor, you need other lawyers within the department to come up with ideas they are passionate about and to help them execute on those ideas. Most likely lawyers within a legal department are already doing small pro bono projects on their own. So, it is important to create a space for such lawyers to take their pro bono project ideas and develop them into company-wide projects. Additionally, providing them a how-to guide or kit can really help ease the anxiety and unease that comes with project ideation, creation, approval, and execution. You can find template guides and kits from resources such as Pro Bono Institute (PBI) and Corporate Pro Bono (CPBO).

  1. Leverage Corporate Resources

If your company has a corporate social responsibility program – such as project managers, connections with non-profit organizations, funding for grants or events – leverage those resources for your pro bono program. Additionally, if your company has issue areas on which it focuses, there might be corresponding legal issues on which a pro bono program can focus. I recently learned about the Delta Airlines corporate-wide program that focuses on human trafficking issues, with the legal department focusing on the related legal matters. Similarly, at IBM, there have been both legal and non-legal projects focused on veterans, housing, and disaster-relief. Findings synergies in such projects not only fits in with the corporate ethos, but also harnesses more resources – be they monetary or people – for your pro bono projects.

  1. “If you build it, [they] will come.”

I have often found that if you create a pro bono program, even if at the beginning stages you think that you don’t have enough people that will participate, the turn out will often surprise you. Like I said earlier, in-house counsel want to do pro bono. They just do not have the resources like some larger law firms to have full-time pro bono staff. But if you offer in-house counsel limited-scope programming, with proper training, and with proper advance notice: they will come; they will be enthusiastic; and they will make a difference.

If you are currently an in-house lawyer trying to start a program or a law firm or legal service provider trying to better engage legal departments, I hope this has helped you with some strategies. And so, please go forth and pro bono!

*For additional resources on pro bono for in-house counsel and corporate attorneys, visit the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service and the Center for Pro Bono here.
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This entry was posted in Access to Justice, Center for Pro Bono, Pro bono news, Pro Bono Story, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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