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Corporate Counsel

Corporations are coming to the forefront of the world of pro bono. Many corporate legal departments have long-standing pro bono programs and policies through which these corporations and their in-house lawyers have given back to their respective communities through the free legal representation of low-income individuals and community-based or non profit organizations.

If you wish to start a pro bono program in your corporate legal department or want to approach a corporate legal department about volunteering with your pro bono program, some areas to consider include:

Benefits of a Corporate Pro Bono Program

There are many benefits of starting a corporate pro bono program, for both the corporation itself and its legal department, which should be emphasized by any individual interested in establishing a corporate pro bono program or by any pro bono program staff approaching a corporate legal department about volunteering.

  • A pro bono program assists those in need and promotes equal justice to all members of the community.
  • A pro bono program provides direct benefits to the community in which the corporation operates. By assisting those in need, the corporation is helping to create a more stable community for its business to flourish.
  • A pro bono program improves the corporation's reputation and stature locally and nationwide, and the corporation further strengthens its relationship and ties with its community. A pro bono program reflects well on the CEO, General Counsel, the corporation's law department and the legal profession as a whole.
  • A pro bono program increases employees' awareness of the diversity of people in the community and increases their appreciation for the community in which they work.
  • A pro bono program can improve and strengthen relations with the corporation's outside vendor law firms. Corporate in-house legal departments may pair up with its outside legal counsel to take on pro bono cases.
  • A pro bono program can contribute to improved employee recruiting and increase employee morale.
  • Many corporations look to law firms to hire in-house legal staff. These lawyers may have been involved in their firms' pro bono program and want to continue their pro bono efforts at their new employer. Additionally, many law firm lawyers view pro bono as a means to keep their litigation and courtroom skills sharp or as a way to continue representing the rights of individuals. Thus, a potential employer's pro bono commitment and willingness to allow them to pursue pro bono opportunities are a strong consideration of many attorneys switching to the corporate world.
  • A pro bono program encourages teamwork and collaboration among the in-house legal department staff.

Benefits to Corporate Legal Departments

  • A pro bono program permits the corporation to enable its lawyers to fulfil their professional responsibility to render legal services to those who are in need of legal services, but unable to pay.
  • A pro bono program provides personal and professional satisfaction to lawyers participating in the program.
  • Engaging in pro bono work provides an opportunity to develop and improve legal skills, such as interviewing, interpersonal and communication, research, litigation, drafting, advocacy, trial, case management and negotiation. For many non-litigators, pro bono work provides courtroom experience and direct client contact that they may not otherwise experience.
  • By providing new challenges and a change of pace, pro bono work will improve and sustain employee morale.
  • A pro bono program fosters interaction, cohesion and collaboration between all staff. A pro bono project may provide attorneys with the opportunity to work with different attorneys, and, by involving paralegals, administrative assistants, legal secretaries and other support staff in the pro bono program, the legal department will increase the overall morale of the legal department as well as provide personal and professional rewards to support staff.
  • A pro bono program can assist in the professional development of young lawyers.
  • Pro bono work may provide attorneys with the opportunity to satisfy continuing legal education ("CLE") requirements. Many pro bono programs offer CLE credit for participating in the program or the program's training. Thus, to provide attorneys with another way to efficiently use their time, a corporate legal department may want to join with, or make available, the opportunity for its attorneys to participate in a pro bono program that offers CLE credit.

Essential Elements for a Successful Commitment

  • Top to bottom leadership. In most cases, unless the General Counsel participates publicly in the program and supports involvement by in-house legal staff, the program will struggle.
  • Formal structure, including a pro bono policy and coordinator/committee. This structure provides a level of legitimacy to the program that would not exist without it.
  • Readily available opportunities. Busy in-house counsel staff is much more likely to participate in readily available opportunities than opportunities they must generate themselves.
  • Substantive training and back-up support. Typically, in-house counsel staff is not trained in the areas of law that provide the most pro bono opportunities, so training and support are both essential to securing participation.

Suggested Components of a Pro Bono Policy

  • Establish a company commitment.
  • Define pro bono.
  • Permit pro bono work on company time.
  • Develop guidelines pertaining to use of other company resources (support staff, office equipment, postage costs, etc.).
  • Develop retainer agreements.
  • Provide case approval guidelines.
  • Perform conflicts check procedure.
  • Ensure adequate representation of clients.
  • Develop policies on the use of company stationery, the use of office space for interviewing clients, etc.
  • Promote quality assurance measures, including record keeping and case tracking.
  • Provide an expense reimbursement policy.
  • Obtain applicable malpractice insurance.
  • Handle the issue of unauthorized practice of law for those lawyers specifically licensed only to represent the corporation.
  • Explain the role of the pro bono coordinator and/or committee.

Perceived Barriers to Corporate Counsel Pro Bono

Many in-house attorneys believe certain barriers exist that thwart their efforts to do pro bono work. Some examples of the perceived barriers to corporate counsel pro bono include:

  • Corporate counsels traditionally possess business law and/or transactional skills, which may not be helpful to programs serving individual clients with bread and butter cases. Also, their background may make them hesitant to accept litigation-oriented matters;
  • The geographic location of corporations may leave corporate counsels isolated from court, clients, and agencies found in major metropolitan areas;
  • Corporate counsels may hesitate to accept cases because of the travel schedule, the small in-house department staff and the lack of back-up in the event corporate matters preclude them from working on pro bono cases;
  • The corporate legal department environment may be less flexible than a law firm;
  • The corporation may lack malpractice insurance for its in-house attorneys; and
  • The corporate counsel may have unauthorized practice of law issues to address before participating in pro bono work.

Examples of Pro Bono Activities for Corporate Counsel

Keeping in mind the perceived barriers to corporate counsel pro bono, there are many appropriate pro bono activities for in-house counsel staff. These include:

  • Providing traditional legal representation to individuals and families on range of issues including consumer, family law issues, housing, wills, etc.;
  • Participating in non-litigation activities, such as brief advice and referral clinics or hotlines;
  • Providing legal representation to nonprofit institutions including community-based organizations, on a range of issues using business/transaction skills including: drafting by-laws, seeking tax-exempt status, assisting a tenant organization in the development of affordable housing through handling complex zoning, tax, real estate and financing issues;
  • Undertaking legal research and writing projects;
  • Placing an in-house counsel as an extern in a legal services or pro bono program office; and
  • Engaging in public policy to address systemic issues by lobbying, drafting and proposing new legislation or amending existing law.

Models of Corporate Pro Bono Programs

The following are suggested models for a corporate legal department to use in creating a pro bono program:

  • Partner with a legal services or pro bono program office to handle pro bono cases;
  • Partner with outside counsel and work on pro bono cases as a team;
  • Create a signature, stand-alone project;
  • Sponsor a neighborhood clinic; and
  • Utilize the Small Firm Model, in which staff is organized into small teams to work on cases and help provide back-up support.

ABA Center for Pro Bono Knowledge Center

As an additional resource, the Center for Pro Bono maintains an extensive Knowledge Center of over 4,000 documents (articles, reports, studies and news clippings) pertaining to pro bono related matters with a focus on pro bono program management. The collection includes materials on corporate counsel pro bono, such as corporate pro bono policies. Each document is summarized and recorded in the Knowledge Center.

Other Resources

Pro Bono Development Guide: How to Start an In-House Pro Bono Program, CPBO (2013)

Project Tool Kit Model Law Firm and Corporate Pro Bono Documents, INTA (2017)

Corporate Pro Bono

Corporate Pro Bono is a national outreach and technical assistance project sponsored by the Association of Corporate Counsel and the Pro Bono Institute. Corporate Pro Bono's mission is to enhance the pro bono culture at in-house legal departments and to exponentially increase the volume of pro bono work undertaken by in-house lawyers and to assist legal services, pro bono and public interest programs in publicizing and placing pro bono matters with in-house lawyers. The site features a library of publication and resources about corporate pro bono, the Corporate Pro Bono Challenge and a practitioner network linking volunteers with experienced mentors.

The Pro Bono Institute

The Pro Bono Institute provides support, guidance, training, resources, and inspiration to major law firms, in-house corporate legal departments, and public interest organizations seeking to expand and enhance access to justice for the poor and disadvantaged and promotes effective and productive partnerships among these groups.

More Information

For more information on corporate counsel pro bono, visit theCenter for Pro Bono Knowledge Center, or please email the Center for Pro Bono.

Updated March 2020