How to create and maintain a sustainable pro bono program

Corporate Pro Bono offers legal departments advice on establishing aid

The notion of in-house pro bono is still in its infancy, for the most part. According to Eve Runyon, director of Corporate Pro Bono—the partnership project between the Pro Bono Institute and the Association of Corporate Counsel—in-house programs have taken off just within the past 10 years. Legal departments also face some unique challenges in this area: In-house lawyers often worry that they don’t have enough time to take on pro bono projects, and some of them are not licensed locally to provide legal services to anyone but their employer. Departments also have to worry about malpractice insurance for pro bono work, and make sure that if they don’t provide it, that the legal service organization they’re working with does.

Runyon has seven years of experience through Corporate Pro Bono working with in-house counsel on their pro bono programs, which makes her the perfect person to offer tips on creating sustainable programs to legal departments that want to start one but just don’t know where to begin.

Create a structure. A successful pro bono program requires planning and oversight, even at the smallest companies. “Regardless of the size of your legal department, it’s important to have either a pro bono committee or a pro bono administrator,” Runyon says. “It’s important to have someone or something that’s responsible for the planning and maintenance of the program. That’s going to be key to its longevity.”

Support it from the top. The company’s management and general counsel have to be on board. GCs can show their support by discussing pro bono projects at staff meetings, participating at pro bono events or by making a public statement, such as signing the Corporate Pro Bono Challenge, which demonstrates a legal department’s commitment to promoting pro bono.

Embrace variety. Once a department has appointed a pro bono administrator or committee, it should be sure to seek out many different kinds of projects with different levels of time commitment so that all attorneys, regardless of their expertise and availability, have a chance to participate.

Don’t go it alone. Whether a legal department is just starting out or looking to expand an existing pro bono program, there are plenty of resources to consult. Corporate Pro Bono offers browsable information on its website, and other legal departments in similar areas or industries can offer invaluable advice. “The key for in-house departments is that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Runyon says. GCs should also consider partnering their departments with law firms or legal service organizations to work collaboratively on projects.

Recognize good work. Pro bono not only increases work satisfaction and engagement for the individual lawyer doing the work, but also it boosts morale and teamwork within the legal department as a whole, and contributes to the company’s overall community involvement. So it’s important to spread the good word about the work lawyers are doing. “It’s very rewarding to them as individuals,” Runyon says. “It’s also rewarding to the clients that are receiving services. So being able to share those good stories with other people in your department is very important. It keeps the momentum of the program going.” 

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