For legal departments, launching a pro bono project can be formidable. There are logistics to consider, malpractice liability to weigh and state bar restrictions to adhere to. Combine that with the reality that legal skills needed in the community don't mesh with those honed in corporate offices, and it's easy to get discouraged.
But as corporate social responsibility becomes a mantra of top executives, legal departments are taking the plunge. Often they can jumpstart a program by partnering with a law firm that already has worked through the complications.
That's the solution that ExxonMobil's Fairfax, Va.-based legal group arrived at last year after Andrew Fisher, counsel in the fuels marketing division, attended a Pro Bono Institute forum. There he made a connection that led to a partnership with Hunton & Williams' McLean, Va., office.
A small program Hunton had started with Legal Services of Northern Virginia (LSNV), writing wills, health care directives and power of attorney documents for low-income clients, meshed with Exxon attorneys' interest in elder law assistance.
"Elder law is one of the best ways to do meaningful pro bono work where the time commitment is very predictable," says Hunton Partner Scott Yarnell.
Hunton attorneys trained about 70 Exxon attorneys, paralegals and support staff in drafting the documents. On Sept. 29, 2009, the first clinic provided 15 LSNV clients with the documents they needed. That was equal to the total number of LSNV clients that received such assistance in the previous year. The partnership plans to hold clinics quarterly.
"Because of our ability to work with Exxon and Hunton & Williams, we are quadrupling the number of people we are helping," says Dan Schy, pro bono coordinator for LSNV.
Fisher was especially moved by a woman in her late 80s. She had recently suffered a stroke and was unable to attend the clinic, but her daughter came in her place. Fisher and a Hunton attorney arranged to visit the elderly woman in her home to gather the information needed for her documents.
"The lady was still sharp as a tack," Fisher says. "We very much enjoyed the interaction with her. Pro bono work gives you to opportunity to meet people you usually wouldn't run into and see their needs. Working in-house, you may not touch the community as much as in some other legal careers, so this gives you an opportunity to get out and do things for the benefit of the community."
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