New rules in Illinois open doors for in-house pro bono work

The Illinois Supreme Court expands opportunities for out-of-state in-house counsel to provide pro bono services

When in-house lawyers licensed in other states are only permitted to do work for their employers, it can make setting up a successful corporate pro bono program pretty difficult, as socially conscious GCs are surely aware. But on April 8, the Illinois Supreme Court remedied that problem for businesses within the Prairie State with a rule change that unties the hands of many out-of-state in-house counsel.

The court amended Illinois’ Rules 716 and 756 to allow lawyers who are licensed in other states, but registered in Illinois, to provide pro bono services without having to be supervised by an Illinois-licensed attorney or pre-approved legal aid organization. The rules took effect immediately.

“It opens up the opportunities for [in-house lawyers] to serve in a greater capacity,” says Veta Richardson, president and CEO of the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC).

Illinois is the third state to make such a change—Colorado blazed the trail in 2006, followed by Virginia in 2011. 

In conjunction with Corporate Pro Bono, a partnership project between the ACC and the Pro Bono Institute, the ACC pushed heavily for the rule change in Illinois, according to Richardson. The organization sent a letter on March 8 to Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride in support of the proposal to amend these rules. The ACC gathered the signatures of more than 60 general counsel and chief legal officers, including those from companies such as Morton Salt Inc., Allstate Insurance Co., OfficeMax Inc., Caterpillar Inc. and Walgreen Co.

“The letter highlighted the dedication and importance of pro bono work to leaders of the in-house bar,” says Richardson. “Their counsel, whether Illinois-licensed or -registered, would be seeking these opportunities to serve communities in need.”

The rule change benefits out-of-state in-house lawyers, certainly, and companies that value community service. But the state itself should also see some positive impact on what Richardson calls an “overburdened” legal system, what with the immediate availability of many new volunteers ready to help citizens in disadvantaged communities.

With Illinois joining Colorado and Virginia in setting an example of the value of in-house counsel doing pro bono work, Richardson says she expects to see similar changes elsewhere, and that the ACC will work proactively to help make that happen.

Some states “may have restrictions that require you to be supervised, or only volunteer at certain organizations that have been preauthorized,” she says. “In other cases, they may just have a blanket prohibition against in-house counsel who are not licensed in their state to be able to engage in pro bono in any form. … Certainly states like those provide a disincentive for corporations to invest the resources and the time to establish these programs that can only serve a portion of their population.”

Richardson mentions Alaska, Hawaii, Michigan, Nevada, New York, Texas and Utah as states where restrictions on in-house pro bono work are less than ideal. “Those are states that we have on our radar to make positive change,” she says.

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