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By Kristin Casler
Featuring Eve L. Runyon, Esq., director, Corporate Pro Bono, and Traci Braun, associate general counsel, Exelon
In the coming weeks, you’ll likely be wrapping carefully chosen holiday gifts to give friends and loved ones. Toys, jewelry and clothing are sure to be on your list. But will your time make the cut? A few hours of your legal expertise can make a world of difference to those who cannot afford legal help.
In the past, in-house counsel who wanted to donate their legal services had to do it on their own, without much corporate support. But in recent years, more and more companies are not only encouraging pro bono work, they are running pro bono programs.
Corporate Pro Bono, the global partnership project of Pro Bono Institute and the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC), has worked with 800 companies and 40 ACC chapters to orchestrate pro bono services. More than 145 companies around the country have signed commitments to the Corporate Pro Bono Challenge® initiative, which calls for chief legal officers to encourage and promote pro bono service, to encourage at least half of their legal department staff to participate in pro bono service, and to encourage outside law firms to become signatories to the Pro Bono Institute’s Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge®.
It’s catching on
“We’ve seen a tremendous increase in the number of legal departments and ACC chapters looking to incorporate pro bono work into their efforts,” said Eve Runyon, director of Corporate Pro Bono. “It’s an exciting movement and one that is occurring not just in the United States but around the globe.”
Traci Braun, associate general counsel at energy giant Exelon, has been doing pro bono work since she joined the company in 2008. She brought some of her private law firm pro bono work with her, and Exelon, which has had an active program for 15 years, strongly encouraged her to continue to pursue her projects. Now, she chairs the department’s pro bono committee.
Exelon’s expansive pro bono policy allows department members to participate in a broad range of pro bono opportunities, from helping undocumented youth obtain work permits and social security numbers to working with low income seniors to draft powers of attorneys and living wills, helping veterans receive combat-related special compensation benefits, or helping homeless individuals obtain copies of their birth certificates, which is a prerequisite for applying for many types of public benefits. Runyon said in-house counsel are engaged in a wide variety of matters, including landlord-tenant disputes, immigration cases, domestic violence matters, plus transactional matters for non-profits and small businesses.
Additionally, Excelon hosts “all hands” pro bono projects in each of its three main offices. The entire department comes together to put on a legal clinic in partnership with a local not-for-profit and often times a law firm.
“The need for pro bono assistance is enormous, so I’m grateful that Exelon has a policy that lets us pitch in to help wherever a particular need is identified,” Braun said.
The majority of corporate pro bono projects are shorter-term commitments, Runyon said. At Exelon, clinics are a prime source of pro bono work. However, Braun said a number of attorneys take on longer-term projects, such as serving as guardian ad litem in family court or representing asylum seekers in immigration court.
“Notably, we have several attorneys in our Chicago office who have invested thousands of hours on an Alabama death penalty case over the last five years,” she said.
Personal satisfaction and productivity
Braun said she makes her pro bono work a priority, so it’s not tough to find adequate time. She noted that General Counsel Darryl Bradford considers pro bono service a core value for the department, and the company strongly encourages all employees in the department to commit time to pro bono work. The leadership recognizes that individuals who dedicate time to pro bono actually tend to be more engaged and more productive in their daily work lives.
“Personally, I get a lot of satisfaction from the interaction with my pro bono clients. It’s humbling sometimes to realize how much impact you can have as an attorney just by sitting down with a pro bono client and working on their problems, even for just a few hours,” Braun said. “We all work very hard in our day-to-day jobs to further our company’s interests, but there is something particularly rewarding about helping an individual in a way that materially changes his or her life for the better.”
As an added bonus, Braun said she has learned new skill sets and expanded her network of professional contacts. “There is no downside, and the upside is limitless.”
Job satisfaction and retention
In fact, Runyon said companies report increased job satisfaction, employee engagement, professional development, retention and recruitment benefits. Companies also benefit from pro bono when colleagues work together who might not otherwise have the opportunity, she said.
Creating a formal pro bono program is not right for every company, because some do not have the resources and the bandwidth to dedicate, Runyon said. However, all in-house counsel can serve their communities with pro bono. For instance, ACC chapters touch hundreds of in-house departments and provide access to pro bono for smaller law departments and others.
For those who feel even the slightest tug, Runyon said her organization can help. Corporate Pro Bono helps to determine the needs and interests of a legal department or ACC chapter and its community, and tailors a program. “There is no need to reinvent the wheel,” Runyon said.
“We have a number of resources available online. You can use those, plus we offer free consulting services to get companies started or to expand and identify new opportunities.”
Increasingly, in-house departments look to collaborate with law firms and legal services programs. There’s an increased desire to work with other legal departments on pro bono. Some companies initiate it on their own; Corporate Pro Bono facilitates it for others. They hold regional meetings to bring together leaders. This partnering with other firms adds benefits for the attorneys and helps the corporate pro bono programs benefit even more clients.
“I’m grateful to all the nonprofits who partner with us so often,” Braun said. “The amazing dedication that these organizations show to helping individuals in need is truly inspiring. I’m glad that Exelon can play a role in meeting the ever-increasing need for pro bono service, and I’m happy to see more in-house counsel getting actively involved in pro bono.”