Pro Bono — the Inside Story

Having previously conducted research into the law firms with the leading pro bono practices, Who’s Who Legal turns its attention to the practice of pro bono among in-house legal teams. In this feature, we explore why the practice is on the rise, how corporate counsel are providing pro bono services and their motivation for doing so, and the positive impact such activities can have on the company as a whole.


On 2 December 2013, New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman announced that out-of-state lawyers employed as in-house counsel in New York would be able to provide pro bono legal services. This follows similar moves in Illinois, Virginia and Colorado. According to Lippman, only 20 per cent of the civil legal needs of New York’s low-income residents were met in 2012 and the state hopes this development will help fill the gap.

Corporate pro bono is on the rise throughout the world and the timing could not be better – the difficult economic climate and legal aid cuts have led to a dramatically increased demand for free legal services from underprivileged sections of society. Recent developments throughout the world have helped to break down some of the barriers formerly hindering in-house counsel’s involvement and have unleashed a section of the legal profession which was previously dormant. In this special feature, Who’s Who Legal delves into the corporate world to find out the inside story of pro bono.

Pro bono is an ingrained feature of law firm culture but for in-house lawyers it is a much more recent phenomenon. The activities of in-house counsel are restricted to a greater extent than their private practice counterparts; not all corporate counsel possess practising certificates and those that do often have restrictions placed on them which limit the work they are able to do for anybody other than their employer. Furthermore, they do not carry professional indemnity insurance to cover advising anybody other than their employer and in some instances, they might have no insurance at all. Lastly, corporate legal teams can lack the resources or expertise to run projects independently.

Recent developments have gone a long way towards overcoming these barriers and freeing in-house professionals to provide pro bono legal advice. The announcement in December in New York follows similar declarations elsewhere in the world. According to Mark Nordstrom, senior counsel, labour and employment at GE, the company was very involved in efforts to bring about rule changes in Connecticut permitting in-house counsel to undertake pro bono assignments. The rule change, effective from 1 January 2013, allows corporate counsel to represent pro bono clients under supervision. The company is now focusing its efforts on persuading the Connecticut bar to revisit their ruling in light of New York’s more liberal rule allowing in-house counsel to accept pro bono assignments without supervision.

In the UK, in-house lawyers can access insurance policies held by pro bono organisations such as LawWorks. Some firms have also negotiated with their insurers so that corporate counsel working alongside the firm can access the insurance coverage. In Australia, as of September 2013, all practising certificates in all states and territories will authorise the holder to undertake pro bono legal services with a no-fee “voluntary only” practising certificate available in Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia. In 2009, the National Pro Bono Resource Centre established a professional indemnity insurance scheme, which is now available to in-house lawyers in all states and territories (except Western Australia) and covers pro bono activities free of charge.

Following these positive developments, recent figures show that there has already been a marked uptick in the number of companies with a pro bono programme. The Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy’s 2013 report, “Giving in Numbers”, stated that 50 per cent of companies surveyed reported that they offer either a domestic or international pro bono programme. This is an increase from 32 per cent in 2008.

According to DLA Piper’s head of pro bono and corporate responsibility for the UK, Europe, Middle East and Asia-Pacific Nicolas Patrick, the trend for increasing in-house pro bono engagement is being led by the US. “Most of the Fortune 500 companies in the US have in-house lawyers engaged in pro bono activities,” he reports. “A number of general counsel within these companies have mandated a target number of pro bono hours for their lawyers while others have approved a policy whereby in-house lawyers are encouraged and supported to do pro bono work.” This has led Europe-based in-house counsel working for these corporations to look for similar opportunities.

To further encourage companies to engage in such activity and formalise their practice, the Pro Bono Institute (a DC-based non-profit organisation) in partnership with the Association of Corporate Counsel has designed the Corporate Pro Bono Challenge to enable in-house legal to identify, benchmark and communicate their support for such work. Signatories are required to encourage and promote pro bono among their legal staff, aiming to have at least half engaged in pro bono activities, and encourage outside law firms with whom they work to become signatories to the law firm pro bono challenge.

UPS was one of the founding signatories in 2006. Dena Hong, the pro bono coordinator explains the company’s reason for joining. “It goes back to our general counsel and the importance she has placed on volunteerism and contributing to our local communities,” she says. “In these trying economic times, the need to aid those who are disadvantaged in our communities is reinforced. When there are fewer funds available, what can we always commit? Our time and expertise.” Although there has been a long tradition of pro bono and volunteering at UPS, the programme was only formalised in 2009.

As for why in-house legal teams want to be involved in pro bono, the business case is clear: “It always helps the brand,” explains Hong. It enables companies to be visible within their communities and plays into the concept of “being a good corporate citizen”. But as Hong goes on to say, “These are by-products and not the driver for us providing pro bono services. We see it as our professional and civic responsibility to assist those who are disadvantaged in our communities.” To get lawyers involved and to make projects a success, she adds, it is essential that there is “genuine enthusiasm and commitment”. Nordstrom agrees: “It is part of the social responsibility of lawyers. We are a privileged group of people and as part of that we ought to give back.” Rene Kathawala, firmwide pro bono counsel at Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe, adds, “We see a genuine interest among clients to serve communities. Of course, it could be seen as a marketing objective, but what matters is that firms and corporations are setting out to do meaningful pro bono work as their main incentive. If it is used later as a marketing tool, that’s their choice.”

In practice, whether pro bono activities are used to market a company is second to whether such activities are creating a positive impact in local communities. As Nordstrom says, those who criticise pro bono “should do some more digging to see the great impact this work is achieving worldwide”. Tim McClimon, president of the American Express Foundation and vice president for CSR for the company explains that pro bono (as a part of the company’s overall CSR programme) “is a major part of our brand and how we want to be viewed”. He goes on to add, “American Express has been engaging in CSR for hundreds of years and fully intends to continue doing so. We are in it for the long term and values like trust and integrity are always going to trump short-term profits from any PR gimmicks.”

The importance of this altruistic work is demonstrated by its increasing appearance as a consideration in the tender process. Patrick describes how DLA Piper is regularly asked by clients when invited to tender to describe the extent of the firm’s commitment to pro bono. “The level of interest is different in different parts of the world, but the expectation that firms will have a pro bono practice is increasing consistently across the board.” Tim Soutar, chair of the IBA pro bono committee, also recognised this trend, commenting, “Many large clients are expecting their panel firms to be involved in pro bono to a significant extent.” Companies are looking for law firms who reflect their own values and ethics.

For corporate legal departments, partnering with external counsel is fast emerging as the most popular method. Soutar explains that “this helps to address fears which previously acted as an impediment to in-house counsel involvement” such as the lack of professional indemnity insurance coverage and minimal expertise in certain areas of law. Hong at UPS says, “There is reluctance among in-house counsel to be engaged in an area of law outside of their expertise. This can be daunting for many people.” For unfamiliar matters, such as landlord/tenant disputes, the legal team partners with outside counsel. Hong explains how this provides “peace of mind” for her legal team to know they have the support of a specialist at hand if required while they are still able to run the project themselves on a day-to-day basis.

Such collaboration also helps to overcome the lack of resources and support structure that affect many in-house teams. Even at GE, home to over 1,000 lawyers across the globe, the legal staff are thinly spread with few large concentrations of experts, which can make it difficult to take on very large mandates.  

There is enthusiasm from both clients and outside counsel to work together, particularly where projects would benefit from the involvement of an in-house lawyer. One such example is a programme in Moscow where DLA Piper is working with Verizon, Microsoft and White & Case to teach a course titled “Professional Responsibility and Ethics in the Global Legal Market”. Students benefit from an in-house perspective of when conflicts can arise which complements the experiences of private practice lawyers.

According to Kathawala, “There is now a much stronger interest among corporate in-house legal departments to partner on pro bono projects.” Orrick has been actively partnering with clients in the US, but it has yet to do so in Europe or Asia. “It is something we fully expect to happen in the near future,” says Kathawala. The firm has partnered with clients on the running of clinics and cases, but he admits that despite the growing enthusiasm among in-house legal, “It is often up to law firms to initiate these partnerships.”

DLA Piper also sees a considerable number of requests from in-house counsel looking to partner with the firm due to the level of sophistication and maturity that the firm’s pro bono practice has achieved. According to Patrick, “Partnering is a recent phenomenon – particularly in Europe and Australia – and you don’t want clients to have a bad first experience. This means that you need to get them involved in long-running projects which have proven themselves successful.”

This is a widely held view: “There is pressure to ensure that any lawyer – whether in-house or in private practice – has a positive first experience of pro bono,” says Kathawala, “and this can involve additional time on the part of coordinators to develop programmes.”

As to whether partnering on pro bono projects enhances inside/outside counsel relationships, both sides are in strong agreement. “Absolutely,” responded Patrick. “Lawyers like to network with clients – and what could be a more effective form of networking than working collaboratively, side-by-side on a pro bono project? It is a powerful tool.” Nordstrom agrees: “It adds an entirely different context to the relationship. Everyone who undertakes pro bono comes out of it feeling proud, satisfied and fulfilled. Sharing these feelings is helpful to any relationship.”  

When not working alongside their external counsel, corporate legal teams are working with entities such as the Pro Bono Partnership. Founded by in-house lawyers, the non-profit organisation serves the New York tri-state area providing pro bono legal services to non-profits serving the disadvantaged or enhancing the quality of life in these neighbourhoods. The opportunities are uniquely tailored to the talents and needs of in-house counsel specialising in non-litigious practice areas. Nordstrom combines his role at GE with chairmanship of the Pro Bono Partnership and says, “The organisation meets specific needs of in-house counsel; it enables them to do pro bono work in a way which is effective and rational.” He adds, “We call it collateral caring – using our transactional skills to free up community service organisational staff to better help those in need.”

UPS works with the Pro Bono Partnership of Atlanta, which allows the company’s lawyers to work directly alongside non-profit organisations. Hong explains how the way in which the partnership operates works especially well for in-house counsel: “Projects are broken down by subject matter so that in-house lawyers can quickly and easily find a project within their expertise.”

The growing momentum behind corporate pro bono is driven in part by changing attitudes towards the role corporations play in society as well as the recognition that it is a lawyers’ professional responsibility and in-house lawyers should not be excluded from the opportunity of participating in pro bono projects. As the appetite for pro bono within companies rises, so does the pressure to relax the rules regulating corporate counsel’s activities. The result is a changing picture, and one where the skills of the whole legal profession are maximised.



Dena Hong - Pro bono coordinator, US



Projects: Streetlaw, Guardianship programme, working with the Pro Bono Partnership of Atlanta

Date of formalisation of the pro bono practice: 2009

Percentage of lawyers involved: 90 per cent of US attorneys. They contribute an average of 24 hours of pro bono and volunteer work per lawyer per year.

Culture of pro bono at UPS: “Our general counsel is a strong proponent of pro bono and of the company contributing to the communities in which we serve. As a global organisation, support at the highest level is important in setting the tone and encouraging participation at all levels. Pro bono is viewed as a shared responsibility and is at the heart of the company’s culture alongside the concepts of contribution, working together and being a team player. The UPS policy book includes a section on volunteerism. Each year we hold an annual meeting with our external legal advisers and we hand out awards, one of which is dedicated to the law firm to have made the greatest impact on the communities in which they serve through pro bono activities.”


General Electric Company

Mark Nordstrom – Senior counsel, labour and employment law



Date of formalisation of the pro bono practice: 1997

Percentage of lawyers involved in the programme: over 50 per cent

Culture of pro bono at GE: “It has to start at the top. Brackett Denniston, who became general counsel in 2004 and senior vice president in 2005, has led us to think more outside the box in terms of the pro bono programmes on offer to lawyers. We are starting to look outside of the US and have recently became a part of TrustLaw Connect, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s global pro bono service that connects lawyers with NGOs and social enterprises throughout the world”.


American Express

Tim McClimon – President of the American Express Foundation, vice president for corporate social responsibility



Date of formalisation of the pro bono practice: 2005

Number of lawyers involved in the programme: currently over 30 in the general counsel office.

American Express has a weekly blog ­– CSR Now! – which communicates the company’s CSR activities. The blog was launched internally for employees and after proving a success it was decided that it would be shared externally too.



Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe

Who’s Who Legal’s Pro bono Law Firm of the Year, 2013

Rene Kathawala – firmwide pro bono counsel



Number of hours contributed in 2012: more than 40,000

Level of engagement: above 70 per cent of the firm at partner, associate and trainee level

Highlight project: Orrick’s social sector finance team represents companies who are making investments intended to create a positive social and/or environmental impact aside from financial return.

Click here to read an exclusive interview with Rene Kathawala.


DLA Piper

Nicolas Patrick – Head of pro bono and corporate responsibility for DLA Piper in the UK, Europe, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific



Number of hours contributed in 2012: 191,800 (3 per cent of its total billed hours)

Selected projects where DLA Piper has partnered with corporate in-house teams: in New York, the firm collaborates with Pfizer on the Pro Bono Alliance for Health and assists in running the Pfizer Cancer Clinic. Since 2010, DLA Piper and two other Pfizer Legal Alliance firms, along with Pfizer, have helped to staff a clinic at the New York University Cancer Institute on a monthly basis. Volunteers from the firm assist families facing cancer, in relation to advance directives issues such as medical powers of attorney, health care proxies and wills, as well as Article 17-A guardianship and Article 81 guardianship proceedings. While other firms are involved in the project, DLA Piper, along with the New York Legal Assistance Group, is responsible for its day-to-day work.

In the UK, DLA Piper has been assisting ITV's annual charity campaign Text Santa which supports six UK charities and culminated in a TV show broadcast on 20 December 2013. DLA Piper has been working alongside ITV's internal legal team to assist in structuring the legal components of the campaign, advising on contractual arrangements with commercial supporters and the charity beneficiaries. Andrew Garard, group legal director at ITV, said: “An appeal like this is a huge amount of work. The support provided from many different teams within DLA Piper has been invaluable in reviewing the structure, streamlining the documents and ultimately getting the appeal launched.”

DLA Piper was selected as one of the 10 leading firms in our inaugural Who’s Who Legal Pro Bono Survey. Click here to find out more.


IBA Pro Bono Committee

Tim Soutar – Chair of the committee, consultant at Clifford Chance



Number of members: around 400

Role of the committee: The main objectives are to foster worldwide recognition of the principle that access to justice is the right of all individuals and to promote access to justice for all, regardless of their financial means, race, age, ethnicity, gender or popularity of cause.

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