There's No "I" in Pro Bono

At the International Law Office's annual gala dinner and awards ceremony over the past few years, I have seen the Global Counsel Awards presented to many deserving individuals and in-house teams - awards, according to ILO, that "recognize demonstrable achievements across the full spectrum of in-house responsibility." Each year I pay particularly close attention to the Pro Bono Award, which recognizes that the "full spectrum of in-house responsibility" includes pro bono work, and I take pride in the fact that our profession - inside and outside counsel - takes so seriously the responsibility we have to help those in need. I commend the past years' winners - Royal Bank of Canada, Caterpillar Inc., Wyeth and National Australia Bank Limited - for their obvious commitment to this effort.

But this column is not meant to exhort or inspire others to provide pro bono services; in my experience few practitioners, including in-house counsel, need the encouragement. The challenge facing most lawyers is not a lack of interest in doing pro bono work, but a lack of time and a lack of opportunities that align with their interests and talents. Significant as those challenges are, they are not insurmountable. Among outside counsel, for example, we have seen law firms developing strategies and an infrastructure to ensure that their attorneys can enjoy meaningful pro bono experiences. Indeed, many law firms (including my own) administer their programs not only by a committee of partners and associates, but also by attorneys who work exclusively as pro bono coordinators. Law firms partner with various public interest organizations that send along interesting and diverse opportunities, and they staff pro bono matters both with eager associates who are looking to develop their legal skills and provide an important public service, and with experienced partners who can provide necessary guidance.

So how can inside counsel enjoy the same breadth of pro bono opportunity and involvement as their outside counsel? For some, I believe one answer lies not in emulating the law firm model, but in joining it. We are seeing a trend over the past few years: rather than trying to create a comprehensive pro bono program of their own, in-house counsel are increasingly "partnering" with outside counsel to take advantage of outside counsel's existing pro bono programs. The partnership can involve a stand-alone project - civil rights litigation or a microfinance transaction, for example - or it can involve an ongoing project with a similar, recurring set of circumstances - such as setting up supplemental needs trusts for the elderly or handling a series of housing rights cases through a public interest organization. Few projects would suffer from the addition of dedicated attorneys, and therefore most projects would benefit from outside and in-house counsel working together as a team.

To be sure, there will be logistical and strategic challenges at the start - how to divide the work, how to select the projects, how to structure the arrangement to preserve all privileges, among others - but there are also great advantages. In-house counsel gets the benefit of choosing from a diverse set of pro bono matters (requiring varying amounts of time) through outside counsel's established relationships with public interest organizations. The pro bono client (and the law firm) would benefit from the added expertise of in-house counsel, who would have the satisfaction of making a significant contribution without sacrificing more time than could be spared. And by working together in the service of a third party, inside and outside counsel would have a chance to cultivate their existing relationship (or, perhaps, test a new one) and to gain an even better understanding of each other's strengths. Everybody wins.

So the next time you're thinking about how to get more involved in pro bono work, but don't quite know where to start, consider partnering with your outside counsel. It's worth a try, and who knows - maybe next year you'll find yourself accepting the Pro Bono Award at ILO's annual gala.

Read Matthew Ingber's previous column. Read Matthew Ingber's next column.

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Matthew Ingber

Matthew Ingber is a litigation partner at Mayer Brown.

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