Richard Gruenberger from DLA Piper and Jessica S. Benson from Pfizer
Back in 2009, Jessica Benson and Larry Miller were given a task that was a bit outside of their traditional, respective roles as senior corporate counsel and assistant general counsel at Pfizer. Although the pharmaceutical giant already had a robust pro bono program within its legal department, its new GC—Amy Schulman—wanted her lawyers to do more volunteer legal work on health care-related issues. And she charged Benson and Miller, who had previous pro bono experience at Pfizer, with making that happen.
Initially, it wasn’t an easy task. Although the pair had some great ideas, they were concerned the in-house lawyers may be fearful of the time commitment as many of them were already hard at work with Schulman implementing the new Pfizer Legal Alliance (PLA) program, a defined partnership with select law firms that allows the department to reduce costs and build relationships.
“Then a light bulb went off,” Benson explains. “Let’s do a partnership within the PLA.”
First, Benson and Miller looked for a program that aligned well with Pfizer’s pro bono goals and found New York Legal Assistance Group’s LegalHealth program. LegalHealth provides free legal services to low-income patients through its weekly legal clinics at New York hospitals. Second, Benson and Miller built pro bono partnerships with four of Pfizer’s PLA firms—DLA Piper, Ropes & Gray, Skadden and Sidley Austin—tasking them with supporting the legal department’s pro bono efforts. Finally, they launched the Pro Bono Alliance for Health in the Pfizer legal department in January 2010 and began training interested lawyers.
The participation is not only flexible, it’s also inclusive—open to any Pfizer in-house lawyer or paralegal, as well as lawyers at all levels from the partnering law firms. Once a month, one Pfizer legal professional and one law firm lawyer work as a team to provide legal assistance to low-income individuals on issues such as medical powers of attorney, health care proxies and wills.
If the work isn’t finished by the end of the day, “the attorneys can choose to take the work back to the office with them or the LegalHealth attorney can take it from there,” Benson explains. “It is very flexible.”
The program has generated a lot of interest in its nearly two years of existence. “We’ve had volunteers from all of our areas of practice,” says Richard Gruenberger, pro bono counsel at DLA Piper. “Some work with Pfizer, but it’s not a prerequisite to get involved.”
Benson and Miller are proud of the success of the program. And although it’s currently only open to Pfizer’s legal professionals located in New York, the team is planning to expand the program to its New Jersey office soon.