Like a tree, a successful corporate pro bono program starts small and compact, then grows, getting bigger and branching out with time.
When then-general counsel Mary McDonald started Merck & Co. Inc.’s pro bono program in 1994, it was just a small core group of lawyers working on bankruptcies and family law.
“That’s what everybody was passionate about—helping families,” says Dianne Peccoro, counsel in Merck’s intellectual property group. She joined the company in 1996, shortly after the program started, and has been involved in some capacity almost the entire time from her appointment to the present. Today, she is the pro bono coordinator for Merck’s Rahway, N.J., office.
The program has gone places, too. More than 175 volunteers—lawyers, paralegals and administrative associates—now participate in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, California and internationally. On March 15, the Pro Bono Institute presented Merck and its current general counsel, Bruce Kuhlik, with the 2013 Laurie D. Zelon Pro Bono Award for commitment to pro bono work.
“At Merck, we believe that with corporate success comes social responsibility, and we strive to make a difference in our local, national and international communities,” Kuhlik said in a press release about the award. “We are honored that the Pro Bono Institute has chosen to recognize our work in helping those without access to legal advice get equal justice under the law.”
Peccoro says the program has “continued to thrive and really be a part of our legal department because of the support from our management as well as [everyone’s] enthusiasm.”
Although lawyers at Merck work on a wide variety of pro bono matters, the program has four signature projects. Bankruptcy remains a core focus—the company’s “Bankruptcy in a Box” program assists low-income citizens who are eligible for bankruptcy. Merck’s other signature causes are assisting disabled veterans, a landlord/tenant program and helping Holocaust survivors get pensions from the German government through a partnership with non-profit human and poverty rights organization Bet Tzedek. There are myriad smaller projects Merck’s lawyers work on as well.
“Every project that we work on definitely impacts the client as well as the volunteer,” Peccoro says.
In addition to providing legal support for the disadvantaged, Merck’s pro bono program is investing in the future of the legal profession. Through the company’s Street Law program, volunteers teach high-school students about various aspects of the law and invite them to a one-day workshop at Merck’s headquarters, where they do a mock trial, act as patent examiners or get other kinds of hands-on experience.
The growth of Merck’s pro bono program into a solid, many-branched tree is a reassuring example for companies still looking to plant a seed.
“Start small,” Peccoro advises. “Focus on one area with a core group of people that really want to do it. Get the training, and once you’re comfortable with that, then you expand. … For programs that want to expand, if you’re already successful, find out what your people are interested in to see what other areas they might be enthusiastic and passionate about.”
Photo: David Ogden, partner at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP (L), and Merck General Counsel Bruce Kuhlik (R) with Merck’s Laurie D. Zelon Pro Bono Award.