Everybody wins with client-firm pro bono partnerships

Partnerships between law firms and corporate legal departments offer the ability to keep lawyers involved in projects that attack the justice gap

The commitment to pro bono representation is core to every lawyer's obligations. Most lawyers, both in private practice and in-house, have a genuine desire to be involved with meaningful pro bono work. However, all lawyers have a challenge in meeting that desire because of other demands on their time.

Businesses face other challenges in becoming involved in pro bono. A business can easily lose its connectedness to the legal system when its only involvement is unwanted litigation. Also, many in-house lawyers are leery of becoming involved in pro bono matters that are not perfect fits for their legal experience. And most businesses are not aware of the pro bono opportunities that do exist.

Consider forming a pro bono partnership. Partnerships between law firms and corporate legal departments — sometimes with a third party legal service organization involved to provide training, malpractice insurance and opportunities — offer the ability to keep lawyers involved in projects that attack the justice gap (the distance between those who can afford legal resources and those who cannot) and at the same time help satisfy the obligation to provide pro bono representation. Also, partnerships help establish lasting, meaningful relationships between the corporate client and its law firm.

On the private law firm side, a significant majority of pro bono work is done by associates of mid-sized to large firms who get “credit” toward their annual hourly commitment through their pro bono service. For the firms that have thoughtful programs, these experiences not only help the firm meet its obligations to the legal system, but also provide great training (particularly in verbal advocacy experience) for the associates.

Transactional pro bono projects are not as plentiful but are becoming easier to find, and in any event provide “first chair” experience for lawyers in those disciplines. Also, some argue that transactional lawyers undersell their ability to serve when they automatically restrict themselves to non-litigation related projects. Transactional lawyers who have been willing to step outside of their comfort zones have found themselves rewarded with extremely satisfying pro bono opportunities.

Nevertheless, somewhere near the senior associate ranks, a lawyer’s appetite for pro bono work can take an unfortunate detour. When the foundational experiences made available through pro bono have been accomplished and the lawyer is looking for either specific expertise development or improving client relationships as his or her entrée to partnership and a long-term sustainable career, the focus turns to business development and producing revenue for the firm.

Likewise, when lawyers leave firms and go in-house, they often find that while the business has significant community involvement opportunities; those efforts rarely involve pro bono service within the judicial system. It is not uncommon that lawyers from firms who prided themselves on their pro bono work, and drew great personal satisfaction from it, find themselves with no pro bono opportunities in their new in-house position. They will typically find other ways to volunteer in the community to meet that need, oftentimes as individuals and not through their employers.

As mentioned in a previous article, because lawyers who end up in the government service field as either judges, prosecutors or other government lawyers have very little contact with corporate in-house counsel other than in an adversary setting, it is difficult for those relationships to develop. We mentioned that bar associations can play an important role in building those relationships. However, another potential approach that can have an even more lasting impact is a fulsome pro bono program for in-house counsel that is visible to the judiciary.

In-house counsel sometimes have not greater, but different types of schedule demands than private lawyers. They also do not have access to associates to help them meet obligations they may have taken on in a pro bono matter. And, as stated above, they sometimes lack knowledge of where to look for a pro bono need.

Firms can help in-house legal departments on both accounts. An active pro bono coordinator at a firm of significant size will be contacted on a regular basis regarding different opportunities. The discerning directors will know which are the most meaningful for the legal system as well as which provide the most meaningful skill development and opportunity.

When legal departments and firms come together to partner on a particular project, the firm can provide staffing and schedule flexibility that will allow in-house legal departments to accomplish the pro bono objectives they may not be able to reach on their own. The firms, of course, relish the opportunity to spend time with the existing (and even potential) clients. Firms would like nothing better than to display firsthand to potential clients the talent that they have available. Firms know that lawyers working together in pro bono projects can develop a relationship of trust and confidence.

Examples of working pro bono partnerships include the representation of domestic abuse victims at restraining order hearings; brief advice at multi-practice walk-in clinics; foreclosure mediation projects and veterans legal service programs. Many other areas also provide opportunities. Legal departments can choose projects that fit their corporate social responsibility platform and get involved.

Mike Gonring, the co-author of this article and Quarles & Brady’s pro bono coordinator, would be happy to talk to any firm or in-house legal department about how to set up a workable client-firm pro bono partnership.

Contributing Author

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Kevin Long

Kevin Long is the national chair of Quarles & Brady LLP’s Commercial Litigation Group. His practice focuses on construction and real estate litigation. He is also...

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Contributing Author

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Mike Gonring

Mike Gonring, a partner at Quarles & Brady, has spent more than 30 years defending companies nationwide against product liability claims. For the last 15...

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