November 30, 2011

FOCUSING ON PRO BONO: Pro Bono in a Green Sense

Allyn M. O'Connor

The Evergreen Brick Works is a former quarry and industrial site locate in the Don River Valley in Toronto. For nearly 100 years, it provided the bricks used to build many Toronto businesses and homes, some of which are well-known landmarks. The nonprofit organization Evergreen has acted as steward for the site since 1997. Geoff Cape, Evergreen's executive director, had a vision for transforming the site into a public-use space, including an international center for the study and promotion of urban sustainability.

Cape recently spoke to Section members about the Evergreen Brick Works, describing the many entities with diverse interests in the site: railroads, commuters, highway authorities, wealthy and poor residents, and city, provincial, and federal governments. Cape noted the difficulties in working with politically complex and often conflicting interests. He also described the challenging geographic and environmental issues that came with rehabilitating a former industrial site.

Cape reiterated Evergreen's biggest challenges—facing multiple interest groups while lacking lobbying or other governmental relations experience, working on sophisticated financial transactions, and focusing on risk management. In order to make the project succeed, Cape knew he needed the assistance of lawyers with finance, real estate, regulatory and other experience. He turned to Lynn Burns of Pro Bono Law Ontario (PBLO).

Burns is PBLO's executive director. PBLO is a Toronto-based nonprofit "that promotes access to justice in Ontario by creating and promoting opportunities for lawyers to provide pro bono legal services to persons of limited means" and to organizations with limited resources. Among other things, PBLO provides consultative services to law firms interested in developing formal pro bono programs. It identifies and develops pro bono projects for firms, focusing only on matters not otherwise handled by publicly-funded legal assistance organizations.

Burns met with Cape in 2003 and immediately realized how ambitious his plans for Evergreen were. She and Cape developed a proposal to solicit pro bono legal assistance. Burns knew the Blakes law firm was a pro bono leader in the Toronto legal community and directed the Evergreen opportunity there. Blakes had been searching for pro bono matters for its corporate lawyers and invited Cape make a presentation.

The Evergreen-Blakes relationship began with a two-year memorandum of understanding. It's since been renewed seven times. Blakes partner Peter MacGowan has worked on several Evergreen matters. MacGowan notes the benefits of working with a social innovator like Cape. It teaches lawyers new ways of thinking, he explains, training them to take new approaches to challenging projects.

So far, a total of 85 Blakes time keepers have worked on Evergreen matters, covering finance, real estate, general corporate, intellectual property, tax, and municipal law (sorry, no litigators). MacGowan characterized the Blakes relationship as a partnership. "And with the right type of partnership, lots of opportunities for benefits on both sides of the ledger," he says. MacGowan has transferred to his finance practice some of the new skills he acquired working on this sustainable development project.

Cape is pleased with the outcome so far. Evergreen now houses a LEED-certified platinum office complex. The site also includes a nature education center and a farmers market. Cape values the pro bono legal assistance Evergreen has received so far at over C$1 million. Cape expects the pro bono community to see far more public-private partnerships throwing off pro bono opportunities in the future, especially where complex urban issues are involved. PBLO's Burns says the success of the Evergreen-Blakes relationship has spurred Toronto large firm interest in environmental work.

MacGowan shares that he regularly bicycles to his Blakes office through the Evergreen site. He reflects on the rewards of working on a project like Evergreen. "It's a tangible thing," he says.

Allyn M. O'Connor

Allyn M. O'Connor is ABA assistant staff counsel, Business Law Pro Bono Project, in Chicago.