These days, it's not unusual for law departments to create a global network to tackle corporate legal issues abroad. But bringing together 70 lawyers from three corporations and a law firm to aid a non-profit's work in a remote part of the world is truly unique and proves that it really is a small world after all.
Legal teams from Accenture, Caterpillar and Merck united with Baker & McKenzie and the Public Interest Law Institute (PILI) to attack the socioeconomic and sexual exploitation of women in Nepal. In 2008, PILI Fellow Sarmila Shrestha, a public interest lawyer for Pro Public, a non-profit based in Kathmandu, brought a case to the Supreme Court of Nepal to fight unjust workplace conditions in "cabin and dance" restaurants, where women and girls as young as 10 years old are forced to smoke, drink and perform sexual services. The court condemned the practices and directed the enactment of legislation to ameliorate the problem.
To advance the effort, PILI asked for help through its Global Pro Bono Clearinghouse, which distributes pro bono opportunities to law firms that secure partnerships with in-house lawyers. The resulting multicompany partnership provided legal analysis and drafted legislation based on international best practices to deter harassment, promote equal pay and workplace safety, and educate employers about their legal obligations.
James Beyer, director of employment law at Accenture, says one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of the task was its global nature. "Technology was central to the ability to do this project," he says, citing digital communications and webcasts. "To hear the voices and see the people who were involved made it much more tangible and real."
The next step in the project is to present the legal analysis to the government and submit the completed draft legislation. "The material [the teams] prepared will be presented to NGO leaders and government officials at a conference in Kathmandu in January, and some of the lawyers on the pro bono team will make presentations designed to help participants digest the complex and comprehensive analysis they have produced," says Edwin Rekosh, executive director of PILI. "Following the conference, Pro Public will follow up with government officials to push for reform."
The project participants received recognition for their endeavors to empower mistreated women. Corporate Pro Bono (CPBO), a partnership between the Association of Corporate Counsel and the Pro Bono Institute (PBI), presented them with this year's CPBO Pro Bono Partner Award at PBI's Annual Dinner Nov. 4.
"This was an effort to improve the lives of women in Nepal by building on an in-nation presence of a public interest group and using the different skills, expertise, time and commitment of different people around the world," says Esther Lardent, president and CEO of PBI. She hopes the award inspires other corporate legal departments to prioritize pro bono work.
"I hope this is just the tip of the iceberg," she says.