A three-way pro bono partnership between a corporation, a law firm and a legal aid group proves that combining a variety of legal skills can lead to success.
About five years ago, lawyers from St. Paul, Minn.-based 3M Co. partnered with the law firm Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, and Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services (SMRLS), a local legal aid provider, to help immigrants who struggled to complete their naturalization applications.
The collaboration began at a pro bono convocation in New York where 3M received a national award for its pro bono immigration services. Martin Lueck, a Robins Kaplan partner who attended the awards, was interested in exploring how his team of lawyers could help 3M, “which had the same value structure as we had: providing services to individuals who wouldn’t get access to the justice system otherwise,” he says.
Lueck called Marschall Smith, 3M’s senior vice president and general counsel, and proposed combining efforts on pro bono work.
“I knew we had a number of attorneys committed to pro bono on the immigration side, and I thought we could service more people more efficiently by teaming up with folks at 3M,” Lueck says.
Smith was intrigued by the litigation services Robins Kaplan could offer to the pro bono projects, and brought the firm onboard.
The partnership has been successful, with 3M lawyers and Robins Kaplan attorneys bringing their own unique skills to the table. The process begins when SMRLS assigns cases of immigrants who applied for naturalization and have been delayed for more than 120 days to 3M and Robins Kaplan. The law firm’s lawyers primarily handle court proceedings, while 3M’s lawyers focus on client counseling.
Smith says the pro bono immigration work has built “a spirit of camaraderie” at 3M, and has allowed attorneys give back to the community. “We are blessed to be employed by a fast, solid and growing company,” he says. “Doing right by our neighbors and friends who are not nearly as fortunate has always been a focus.”
Stephen Safranski, a partner at Robins Kaplan, says his participation in the partnership has been a deeply moving experience. In his first case, he came to the assistance of a Laotian man who had been separated from his family while fighting in a war in his home nation. The man was trying to reunite with his family, who had moved to the U.S. Thanks to the Robins Kaplan lawyers’ and 3M lawyers’ hard work, the man is now a legal U.S. citizen.
“To see [the naturalization ceremony] for the first time was a powerful event,” Safranski says. “It reminded me what I take for granted as a citizen.”
Smith hopes that his company’s partnership with Robins Kaplan and SMRLS will inspire other in-house lawyers to form similar relationships that will help address legal issues in their communities.
“I hope this will provide a funnel for getting more corporate access and time devoted to pro bono projects,” Smith says.