The Chicago Bar Foundation makes it easier for legal departments to take on pro bono work

CBF crafts a set of best practices for corporate legal pro bono work

Joan Fencik and Bob Glaves

Corporate legal departments, like their law firm and business partner counterparts, actively want to be engaged in their communities and help out where they can. But unlike law firms that are centered on the business of law and not supporting a greater enterprise, legal departments are often at a disadvantage when it comes to getting involved in pro bono work because they’re not in the trenches, so to speak.

To this end, The Chicago Bar Foundation (CBF) earlier this year formally kicked off its Corporate Leadership Circle, which is intended to maximize the impact that corporate legal departments can have in the CBF’s efforts to close the gap in access to justice. This includes participating in pro bono programs and providing support for legal aid and related initiatives.

The Corporate Leadership Circle’s Statement of Principles commits members to four specific ideals: to adopt written pro bono practices and policies to support pro bono work; provide financial support for pro bono, legal aid and access to justice initiatives in the Chicago area; actively encourage their outside counsel to adopt sound pro bono policies; and embrace additional policies to aid with the first point when possible and practical, such as supporting broad-based advocacy efforts at the federal or state levels. 

“We wanted to come up with an all-encompassing statement of principles that would serve as best practices for corporate legal departments that are doing the work,” says CBF Executive Director Bob Glaves. “It’s pro bono, but it goes beyond that to other types of support. We often frame that as time, money and influence. Every lawyer, every law firm, every corporate legal department or company has that to some degree.”

Joan Fencik, chairman of the Corporate Leadership Circle and VP & deputy general counsel at Exelon Corp., says that one of the benefits to membership for in-house lawyers is that it pairs them with their outside counsel and helps to build those relationships. This can be especially helpful for in-house attorneys, many of whom are corporate generalists or IP lawyers and can be uncomfortable with the frequent litigation-oriented pro bono projects that present themselves.

“[The Corporate Leadership Circle] helps to engage inside people with something they’re comfortable with,” she says. “And that’s why partnering with law firms is good because people who aren’t litigators feel like they have backup.”

Another Corporate Leadership Circle member, Chris McVety, corporate vice president of legal affairs at Mérieux NutriSciences Corp., thinks this is an important perk of the program. He says that as a result of his involvement, Mérieux’s few-person legal department has done a significant amount of work for Lawyers for the Creative Arts, which provides free legal service to clients in all areas of the arts.

“This is interesting from a corporate perspective,” he says, “because most pro bono opportunities involve litigation or some type of court interaction, whereas this organization helps artists who don’t have the financial means to register a trademark.”

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