Every year The Williams Cos. sends employees on tours of United Way-assisted agencies in the Tulsa, Okla., area to inspire motivation about volunteering. In 2006, GC James Bender took his legal department to Legal Aid Services, a non-profit law firm serving low-income and elderly individuals in Oklahoma. "We met with them, they gave us a tour," explains Assistant General Counsel Craig Rainey. "And we were all really taken aback by the gap between who they needed to serve and the resources they had to do that."
Rainey decided it was time to get involved, but realized the best effort would be a joint one. He contacted Tulsa-based law firm Hall Estill, which handled much of Williams' legal work, about teaming up to provide pro bono support to Legal Aid--and the firm was very much on board.
"For a firm, it's a great thing to get involved like this," says Hall Estill Partner Steve Soul?. "And Williams promoting this really energized us to take the ball and run with it."
Over the course of several months, 40 lawyers and paralegals from both Williams and Hall Estill signed up for the pro bono team. "It was the largest influx of volunteers Legal Aid had ever had," Rainey says.
Legal Aid needed help with end of life planning, defense of garnishment actions and guardianship disputes--among other things. "We're a bunch of corporate lawyers, so this was really foreign to us," Rainey says. So the team brought in local lawyers and judges who specialized in these areas to lead training sessions.
By early 2008, with the appropriate training under their belts, the lawyers were ready take on the work. Setting the tone for the department, Bender took the first case. Since then, the team has handled more than 60 cases and, under the lead of Wendy Brooks, Williams senior counsel, it will soon be taking on another task.
"Steve Soul? and I were talking about how we could help our courthouse," Brooks explains. "We knew a lot of judges and we knew they could use some help." Brooks and Soul? identified the forceable entry docket as an area in which they could help by representing low-income clients, an initiative they will launch in the fall.
The benefits of pro bono work are endless, according to this team. "Young legal professionals get experience in the courtroom they otherwise wouldn't at this point in their careers," says James Proszek, a partner at Hall Estill. Rainey agrees, adding that the program has fostered a more team-oriented environment among the lawyers.
"It is very positive," Brooks says. "This is a totally different type of law than what we're used to, and it's such a humbling experience. It shows us our skills are incredibly valuable."
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