Launching or refreshing your legal department’s pro bono program can seem like a daunting task, but with just a few steps you can set up your department to have a successful pro bono program and your attorneys to have a positive pro bono experience.
Gauge Interests and Capabilities
A good starting point is to find out what kinds of pro bono projects would interest your department. For smaller departments, designating someone to knock on doors and ask people what they want to do may be enough. For larger departments, consider sending out a brief online survey that will allow you to sort the results by location and other factors (Survey Monkey is a handy tool for this purpose).
Also take into account the capabilities of your department. For example, do you have the resources to take on a longer-term litigation matter? Do your business model and client relationships allow you the flexibility to have numerous lawyers leave the office all at once to participate in a clinic?
You might also consider consulting your corporate social responsibility or marketing departments. Perhaps there is a company-wide initiative or a community involvement theme with which you could align your pro bono work, such as helping children or veterans. Working on pro bono opportunities that fit in with the company’s broader social impact programs is a great way to integrate the legal department into the rest of the company and support the overall mission of the company’s charitable giving and community programs.
Create a Structure
While it is not necessary to have a formal pro bono committee, it is critical to have at least one point person designated to run the program. Specifically, the point person should take the lead on organizing pro bono projects or clinics and circulating new types of opportunities. For larger companies with lawyers in multiple locations, consider having one point person in each location, which would essentially form a de facto pro bono committee. The point person should have the full support of the general counsel, because launching or running a program does take some time and energy.
Consider Partnering with Law Firms
One way to minimize the time associated with launching or refreshing your pro bono program is to partner with an outside law firm. Most large law firms have formal pro bono programs, and an increasing number of firms have full-time pro bono counsel whose job is to run the program. Consider reaching out to one or two of the firms you work with, and ask your contact person to connect you with the pro bono coordinator or committee chair. Most firms welcome the opportunity to partner with their clients on pro bono projects, for obvious reasons.
Address Logistical Details
If you are launching a new program, there are some technical details you will want to resolve before you make any announcements. The first is the issue of malpractice insurance. Although the risk is low that you will be sued for malpractice, you should still have insurance. If your company does not already have it, or it does not cover legal work done outside the company, one option is to purchase a policy specifically for this purpose. Another option is that some pro bono referral agencies provide insurance coverage to their volunteers. You could limit your pro bono program so that you work only with agencies that cover volunteers.
The second detail is to make sure you know whether there are any types of pro bono matters that would run afoul of the company’s policies, business goals or regulatory restrictions. Once you have an idea of the pro bono projects you would like to take on, it is best to check with your ethics officer and/or a business leader to make sure the project would not have any adverse effect on the company.
A third technical detail is to check the ethics rules of your state to make sure there are no restrictions on in-house lawyers doing pro bono. Some jurisdictions have limitations on who may practice or where an attorney must be licensed in order to practice.
The last technical detail applies to in-house attorneys who keep track of their time. If you have a timekeeping system, you should ensure that there is a way to set up pro bono matters in the system. You will want the ability to track your time for internal and external reporting purposes.
Once you have a structure in place and you have taken care of the logistical details, your pro bono program is ready to go and your legal department can engage in one of the most rewarding aspects of practicing law.