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Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

Inspired to Serve: In-house pro bono is on the rise

More in-house legal teams are donating their time and skills to benefit Minnesota communities. In this article, the chair of the Minnesota Pro Bono Council discusses that trend, along with recent developments.

On a cold December day several years ago, I met a young veteran who not only reshaped my views about what it means to be homeless but also profoundly altered the course of my legal career.

Working as an in-house attorney for Target Corporation at the time, I had been searching for pro bono opportunities that aligned with the kind of legal work I was doing professionally. A friend of mine in private practice encouraged me to think more broadly and suggested that I participate in a legal clinic she was organizing for Project Homeless Connect, a one-day event in Hennepin County that offered a variety of services and resources to homeless and near-homeless individuals. One of the services offered was a legal clinic in which individuals and families could receive free legal advice from pro bono attorneys on a variety of issues, including family law, expungements, housing, and general civil matters.

While I had done some pro bono work during my years as a private practice attorney, that work was primarily for smaller, non-profit organizations, and my firm had abundant resources to assist in a wide variety of practice areas. I had never had a pro bono experience volunteering as a corporate employee or assisting with an individual client. The first client to sit down with me that day at Project Homeless Connect was a man in his early 20s. He was disheveled and clearly intoxicated. I’m ashamed to admit that when I looked into his eyes, all of my preconceived notions about homelessness sprang to mind. Then I realized that when he looked across the table at me, hoping to receive help, he saw judgment in my eyes. I knew my first impression of him was wrong the moment he began to share his story.

He was a young United States veteran with limited opportunities. Unlike the home that I shared with my wife and children, which was warm and decorated for the holidays, he lived in the woods that surrounded the Minneapolis VA Medical Center. He told me the alcohol that I smelled on his breath helped him cope and tolerate the cold. And while most men his age were enjoying the newfound freedom of adulthood, budding careers, and plans of marriage and family, he was facing a federal felony weapons charge because a pocket knife that he hid in his duffle bag for protection was discovered by authorities during a search of his makeshift “home” in the woods on land that happened to be federal property.

I knew my biases about homeless and impoverished people were wrong and I needed to do something, not only for that veteran, but also for other men, women, and young people in need. As an in-house attorney for a large corporation, I hoped my legal training and experience could help fill an unmet need to further help others. From that day forward, I set out to become better educated on the legal needs of our community, to do everything I could to contribute, and to also try to recruit as many legal professionals as I could to join the cause.

Making a case for in-house pro bono

As they say, timing is everything. When I first I set out to partner with other in-house attorneys and legal professionals on pro bono work, there was already momentum building to organize and formalize programs in Minnesota’s corporate law departments and throughout the country. By that time, companies such as U.S. Bank and 3M Company had been supporting pro bono programs for several decades, and the law departments at Best Buy and United Health Group had been doing meaningful pro bono work for over 10 years. Despite their strong efforts, the ranks of in-house counsel and legal professionals doing pro bono work were still relatively small, and large-scale, collaborative pro bono efforts were rare.

Corporations have been reluctant to formalize pro bono programs for several reasons. When the work relates to controversial issues such as immigration or criminal expungement, it evokes strong emotions and concerns about corporate and/or professional ramifications. Such concerns can place limits on the type of pro bono work a company is willing to support. And many law departments were reluctant to make their employees feel pressured into volunteering their time—or, conversely, were concerned about the amount of time employees would devote to pro bono work versus company business. Another roadblock for in-house attorneys has been an underlying belief that the private bar was better suited to handle pro bono cases. Finally, in-house pro bono work is not typically recognized as part of a corporation’s social responsibility in the same way that public affairs and corporate citizenship initiatives are viewed.

Changing views

Today we are seeing a significant increase in the number of corporate law departments with organized pro bono programs that encourage the participation of in-house attorneys and legal professionals. Many factors have contributed to this change, including:

  • increased support from chief legal officers;
  • a grassroots effort by in-house counsel to actively pursue pro bono training and volunteer opportunities;  heightened awareness of how pro bono work impacts community welfare; and
  • greater recognition of how pro bono volunteering opportunities positively affect law department teamwork and job satisfaction.

Among corporate executives, chief legal officers and general counsel were the first to recognize the benefits of pro bono work. According to Ivan Fong, senior vice president of legal affairs and general counsel at 3M Company, “In-house legal departments that do pro bono work are more highly engaged. They bring passion and purpose to these efforts, it’s personally fun and rewarding to work with others on something different and meaningful, and it builds esprit de corps.” From a business perspective, pro bono work “builds substantive legal and client-counseling skills, provides opportunities for hands-on litigation and transactional experience, and develops important leadership and teamwork capabilities,” says Fong.

The greatest beneficiaries, of course, are our communities. “By some estimates, less than 20 percent of low-income Americans’ legal needs are being met, and of those who apply for federally funded legal aid, roughly half are turned away. The so-called justice gap is real and growing,” says Fong. “From my own experience, in-house pro bono volunteers provide critical and often life-changing legal services to low-income persons and community-based non-profits.”

Receiving buy-in and support from senior leadership has been critical to 3M’s success. “There’s an important public service commitment that comes with being part of the legal profession,” continues Fong. “Whether as a matter of professional responsibility, professional development, social justice, or simply because it’s a great way to get to know our colleagues better and to get involved in the community, there are myriad reasons why it’s important for corporate legal departments to engage in pro bono legal work.”

Similarly, the grassroots effort among in-house counsel to organize, train, and volunteer has been extraordinary. When building in-house pro bono programs, the challenge for legal departments has not been in finding people who are eager to participate. In fact, corporate pro bono teams welcome in-house attorneys, paralegals, support staff, and licensed attorneys who work for different departments within the organization. The challenge, instead, has been in finding the necessary organizational and training resources and also ensuring that employees are allowed time to volunteer.

Partnering with law firms and legal service organizations is one way in-house teams have gained access to training resources and volunteer opportunities. Kirsten Olson, pro bono director at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, has successfully partnered with corporate law departments on a variety of initiatives by providing training and continuing legal education followed by client representation opportunities. According to Olson, in-house attorneys enjoy “clinics, workshops, and similar settings where they can work as a group, ask questions and collaborate. They seek out opportunities to have a personalized connection with clients, and they prefer working with individuals in situations where they can use their law degree to reach out and help someone in a meaningful way.”

Olson also thinks that while in-house volunteers may seem more hesitant at first, “in-house attorneys and legal professionals are likely to do work in multiple areas of law, and there is actually a desire to expand beyond one substantive area if that means they can provide assistance in a more individualized fashion.”

Having a senior leadership team that values pro bono work is one of the keys to ensuring in-house counsel and legal professionals are allowed sufficient time to volunteer. At Target Corporation, for example, the company’s longstanding commitment to community engagement extends to all members of the legal department. “The team’s pro bono work provides an opportunity for our corporate lawyers and legal staff to use their unique skills to build deeper connections within the community. I’ve been part of many different pro bono programs and think that they’re an excellent way to develop, challenge, retain, and build strong teams,” says Don Liu, executive vice president, chief legal officer, and corporate secretary at Target Corporation. “As a leader and chief legal officer, my role is to provide the team with the support, time, and resources to volunteer in a way that’s meaningful to them. In addition to the community benefits that come from pro bono programs, I’ve also found value in the soft skills that these programs can help build for participating lawyers. Volunteering helps lawyers build and hone their communication and presentation skills beyond what they can develop in their day-to-day roles.”

Best Buy has a similar viewpoint. According to Janet Lambert, senior corporate counsel at Best Buy, “our [department’s] pro bono work stems from Best Buy’s corporate culture of giving back. Leadership provides the flexibility and support for those who want to do legal pro bono work, and it’s nice to do something different from your normal, everyday work and to know that you are making a difference for someone else.” In fact, in-house counsel professionals take the aspirational goal of Rule 6.1 of the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct to do 50 hours of pro bono work per year very seriously. “As lawyers, we are licensed professionals and have a professional responsibility to use our legal skills and talents to give back to our communities in ways that other people can’t,” says Lambert.

National groundswell

As pro bono efforts within the Minnesota legal community were beginning to take off, national efforts were also gaining momentum. Esther Lardent, a pioneering civil rights lawyer and the daughter of Holocaust survivors, founded the Pro Bono Institute (PBI) (www.probonoinst.org) in Washington, D.C. in 1996 to “explore and identify new approaches to and resources for the provision of legal services to the poor, disadvantaged, and other individuals or groups unable to secure legal assistance to address critical problems.” Lardent’s focus on creativity and innovation led to a partnership with the Association of Corporate Counsel (www.acc.com) in 2000 and the creation of PBI’s corporate pro bono initiative, which dedicates resources to working with legal departments and ACC chapters throughout the country.

Many of the corporate law departments in Minnesota have benefited from PBI’s support and resources. Jordan Martell, vice president and managing counsel at Thrivent Financial, consulted with PBI as Thrivent worked to develop its pro bono program. “We had a working committee for some time that developed a draft pro bono policy and procedures, but we were stymied by a few questions that essentially stalled our progress,” says Martell. “[PBI] shared best practices and experiences from other corporate law departments around the country, and with their help, we were able to finalize our policy and turn our focus to doing actual pro bono work and increasing participation.”

In addition to helping corporate law departments build and grow their pro bono programs, PBI administers the Corporate Pro Bono Challenge. The challenge is a voluntary commitment by chief legal officers to, among other things, encourage 50 percent or more of their staff to engage in legal pro bono work. Hundreds of law departments have signed on to the program, including many in Minnesota. When Thrivent signed on to the challenge, “it solidified our commitment to legal pro bono and it serves as our guide star reminder to people of our responsibilities,” says Martell. “It also gave us something to shoot for each year.” While Thrivent’s program is one of the newer programs in our community, the company’s thoughtful approach and partnership with organizations like PBI have helped its programs grow quickly and make an impact.

Minnesota is setting an example

In view of the increasing number of law departments throughout the state taking a more formal approach to pro bono work, legal service organizations began to reach out to those departments as potential volunteer pools. In addition, Steve Marchese, pro bono director at the Minnesota State Bar Association, was actively exploring ways to engage with in-house counsel on pro bono activities and related endeavors. All these efforts, happening simultaneously, have served to bolster the pro bono movement within Minnesota’s legal community.

From a national perspective, Minnesota is regarded as a leader when it comes to volunteerism and corporate engagement in pro bono legal work. Minnesota has a high concentration of legal service organizations and corporate headquarters, three law schools, a healthy population of attorneys and legal professionals, and a longstanding belief in the intrinsic connections between philanthropy, business success, and quality of life. While tremendous strides are being made in Minnesota to close the access-to-justice gap, there is still much work to be done, and new and innovative approaches are needed.

One of our legal community’s more recent innovations has been the establishment of the Minnesota Corporate Pro Bono Council, formed in 2014 to bring together pro bono leaders from law departments at Minnesota-based companies and companies with law department staff in Minnesota. While corporate pro bono work has seen tremendous growth over the past decade, Karen Canon, deputy general counsel at U.S. Bank, says, “Many in-house attorneys are not as well connected to the broader legal services and pro bono communities as their counterparts in law firms, and they lack administrative and other support systems. The Minnesota Corporate Pro Bono Council has been an important step in helping support in-house pro bono programs at whatever stage they may be.”

Considering the unique issues related to in-house pro bono, having access to a collaborative group has been extremely valuable to the members of the council. As Canon notes, “Our program here at U.S. Bank has been going for 18 years, but we benefit greatly from leveraging the new ideas and energy from our colleagues at other companies.”

The council meets regularly with the goal of increasing the amount of pro bono work being done by in-house legal volunteers. By all indications, the effort has been a success thus far. Since its founding in 2014, the council has more than doubled in size—and it is still growing. Debra Hovland, assistant general counsel at H.B. Fuller Company, has found it very helpful to be part of the council. “H.B. Fuller Company has been a member of the Corporate Pro Bono Council for a few years, and this has really made it much easier to learn about opportunities and get access to training to do pro bono work,” she says. “Simply hearing stories of how other companies on the council have been successful in doing pro bono work and learning about the kind of work they have done has helped us realize the services we can provide. Additionally, it is clear that there are support systems that really make this easier and more rewarding.”

Like anyone who volunteers for a cause they believe in, legal professionals feel good about their work when there is a direct benefit to people in need. Legal service organizations were quick to recognize that they were in a unique position to be able to connect people in need with volunteers from corporate law departments. Laura Busian, housing resource attorney and program manager at Volunteer Lawyers Network (VLN), says working with in-house counsel and legal professionals from a wide range of Minnesota companies is critical to serving VLN’s clients. “It helps us fill in the gaps,” says Busian. “In-house counsel seem to prefer more finite projects like clinics and brief advice, rather than full-rep or ongoing matters, so it works well for us because we have plenty of opportunities for both types of representation.” Busian adds that in-house counsel and legal professionals “often seek out opportunities outside of their expertise, and there is a strong desire to collaborate and learn.” Furthermore, Busian has noticed that “the in-house attorneys who volunteer on housing matters are often looking for opportunities for meaningful interaction with clients out in the communities where our clients live.” That dynamic, she notes, helps to foster a more genuine interaction between the client and the attorney volunteer.

The Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota (ILCM) is another nonprofit organization that values the contributions of legal pro bono volunteers from in-house legal teams. “The support that ILCM receives from corporate legal departments and individual in-house volunteer attorneys and paralegals is absolutely invaluable to our pro bono efforts and life-changing for our clients,” says Anne Applebaum, pro bono director at the center. “In-house volunteers have provided legal services to hundreds of ILCM clients who would otherwise not have been able to access legal assistance.” While recruiting legal pro bono volunteers is important to improving the lives of low-income immigrants and refugees in Minnesota, Applebaum also sees systemic benefits. “The strong partnerships ILCM has with corporate legal departments provide vital infrastructural support to our organization.
Additionally, by being outspoken about their support for our clients, Minnesota corporations are helping to raise awareness about the importance of immigrant communities in our state. The power of that voice cannot be underestimated.”

Looking back to that December meeting I had at Project Homeless Connect several years ago, I don’t know what happened to that young veteran who lived in the woods behind the Minneapolis VA Hospital Clinic. I do know that he made tremendous sacrifices for our country and he continues to have my respect. He left our meeting with the resources he needed to obtain proper legal representation to defend the charges against him, as well as the assistance to which he was entitled as a veteran of the United States military, which would allow him to move to a warmer, safer environment. I hope he was able to get back on his feet. When I multiply his case by the thousands of others who have been assisted by fellow in-house counsel and legal professionals doing pro bono work in Minnesota, I continue to be inspired and encouraged that the work we are doing together makes a difference in closing the access-to-justice gap.

DAVID MARCH is director counsel at Target Corporation and chair of the Minnesota Corporate Pro Bono Council.  Mr. March is also on the executive board of Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, and he is the co-chair of the Pro Bono Counsel subcommittee of the MSBA’s Legal Aid for the Disadvantaged committee.

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