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Vol. 37, No. 1

Foundations find, and fine-tune, ways to connect with legal community

by Marilyn Cavicchia

Over the years, said Alison Belfrage, executive director of the Ohio State Bar Foundation, the OSBF’s fellows program was “wildly successful.” Each incoming class of 40 lawyers and judges worked on a highly engaging, meaningful service project over the course of a year. The projects won many awards, and each new class strove to outdo the ones that had come before.

And that was just the problem.

The projects got bigger and bigger, explained Belfrage, speaking to members of NCBF, NABE, and NCBP at the groups’ Annual Meeting in Chicago this August. They extended beyond one year and into the next, and they required more and more staff resources. In short, she said, the OSBF was “being consumed” by the fellows projects, which were becoming the foundation’s main focus.

But in paring down and simplifying the program, Belfrage said, the OSBF knew it was important to preserve what was best about it: the way it helped the legal community connect and engage with the foundation.

Joining Belfrage on a panel were Jeanne Doran, client manager at LexisNexis and chair of the Chicago Bar Foundation’s Partner Leadership Circle, and Leonard Pataki, president of the Tulsa County (Okla.) Bar Foundation and trustee on the NCBF board. All discussed ways bar foundations can make that critical connection with their legal community—without taking too much staff time and focus away from the core mission.

OSBF seeks service opportunities

What was right for the foundation seemed to also be right for the legal community, Belfrage said; just as the OSBF felt worn out by the intensive, year-plus fellows projects, so, too, did many members of the fellows classes. By the end of each project, she recalled, the initial class of 40 would dwindle down to a core group of 10 or 15 active participants.

The solution the OSBF arrived at, Belfrage said, was a series of smaller “service opportunities” throughout the year, available to both fellows and nonfellows alike—and an end to the 40-person cap on new fellows added each year.

In order to choose the service opportunities, Belfrage noted, the foundation decided to reach out to its grantees. The OSBF is a grantmaking organization that does not do direct legal services or programs, she said, so this was a way to offer fellows and others some hands-on involvement and show them exactly where the foundation’s dollars go.

The new fellows program is now a fixed 12 months from orientation to graduation, and participants can “right size” their involvement according to what works for them, Belfrage said. A fellow can choose to simply make the required monetary donation, she explained, but for those who wish to participate more actively, the foundation aims to offer between four and six service opportunities a year. Grantees submitted a total of 10 or 15 ideas, she added, noting that those will have to be narrowed down. If a fellow or other participant feels a particular affinity with one of the projects, she said, he or she may arrange to continue working with that grantee.

The first such service opportunity was “incredibly successful,” Belfrage said; in partnership with OSBF grantee Foster Care Alumni of America, the foundation collected about 1,200 items of business clothing over a two-week period, to be given to young adults who had been in foster care and were going out on job interviews.

The OSBF engaged new fellows and board members alike to serve as captains, and others acted as ambassadors throughout all areas of the state, Belfrage said, adding that some donations came in from people who had previously been unfamiliar with the foundation.

As for the fellows and other participants from within the foundation, “Allowing them to see a grantee in action was a great experience,” Belfrage noted.

CBF creates leadership circles

It’s not uncommon for law firms, in-house legal departments, and law-related companies to have pro bono or other public service programs—but it can be hard for participants to see beyond their own programs, said Jeanne Doran of LexisNexis. In order to unite those public-spirited members of the legal profession and vendors that serve the profession, the Chicago Bar Foundation created something it calls Leadership Circles.

There are three, Doran noted: the Law Firm Leadership Circle (for lawyers who practice at firms), the Corporate Leadership Circle (for in-house counsel), and the Partner Leadership Circle (for companies that offer products and services to the legal profession). Participants are expected to contribute their time, money, and in-kind resources to pro bono, legal aid, and access to justice initiatives, and to use their influence to encourage others to follow suit.

The circles are attracting even those who aren’t yet heavily involved with the bar foundation, Doran said, because of the networking opportunities created when all three are brought together for events. Though the word networking has become ineffective and the cocktail hour or dinner is falling out of fashion, she explained, people from different areas of the legal profession still do want to meet each other and work together on something meaningful.

So far, she said, the events have included a screening of a film about human trafficking and a Wills for Heroes program for first responders; members of the Partner Leadership Circle, such as LexisNexis and Exelon (an energy company) have provided key support.

When it comes to encouraging participation, Doran said, the Corporate Leadership Circle is critical; in fact, she noted, “Membership and success are driven by corporate counsel participation.” Why? Both vendors like LexisNexis and lawyers in firms want to connect with in-house lawyers at nearby companies.

The Leadership Circles began with just law firms, then added corporate legal departments, and then the business partners, Doran said, reiterating that the real impact has come from having all three circles interacting with each other.

“Because we’ve come together,” she said, “we’re able to engage the legal community in a way we weren’t before.”

TCBF connects with students

Rather than making grants that support access to justice, Pataki said, the Tulsa County Bar Foundation directly involves lawyers in public service. What that means, he noted, is “We need bodies, not just checks.” One of the best ways the TCBF and its affiliated bar association have found to ensure that there are enough willing participants, Pataki said, is by reaching out to students at University of Tulsa College of Law.         

Each fall, Pataki said, the bar offers a program for 1Ls to show them what the practice of law is really like. There’s a courthouse tour, followed by a tour of bar headquarters, during which the students are offered free bar membership while in school and for their first year after graduation. Law student members can attend any section meetings that appeal to them. In 2011, he noted, 100 1Ls joined the bar, out of a class of 140.

Mentoring is then offered in spring and fall, with pairs meeting once a month. Part of the program is another courthouse tour, but this time, it’s more practice oriented; for example, Pataki explained, a mentor might say, “Let’s meet the family court judges.”

The overarching message in all the bar’s interactions with students, Pataki said, is “Let me show you how to actually do this.” The bar’s solo and small firm section did a program for students on how to start a law firm, and there’s an opportunity for hands-on experience through an ethics committee’s housing assistance program, through which pro bono lawyers handle  landlord-tenant matters. Law students act as assistants to the pro bono attorneys, Pataki explained.

Many law students stay in Tulsa after they graduate, and because they have attended bar functions over the years,  joining the bar and foundation—and participating in events—seems like a “normal” thing to do.

New lawyers’ desire to be of service does not go untapped, Pataki said; the bar’s young lawyers division partners with the foundation “all the time.”