Why Partnerships Can Help Maximize In-House Pro Bono

By Michele Gorman | November 3, 2019, 8:02 PM EST

In-house lawyers at Chubb Ltd. were eager to tackle pro bono work but knew that going it alone could be a daunting challenge in terms of direction and logistics.

The solution? Partnering with one of its outside firms to collaborate on matters in which the corporate attorneys lacked the necessary expertise to help on their own.

Together with a legal services organization and Cozen O'Connor in Philadelphia, the insurance company about three years ago began representing individuals in cases including guardianship matters by grouping together an in-house lawyer with a law firm attorney, according to Kim Takacs, vice president of global information technology and operations risk and governance at Chubb.

“That gave the comfort of the in-house lawyer that they were going to have somebody by their side to help them through that case,” Takacs said, speaking Tuesday during a panel discussion at the 2019 Association of Corporate Counsel Annual Meeting in Phoenix.

It’s partnerships like Chubb’s that have helped legal departments and companies establish and grow successful pro bono programs to give back to their communities through free legal representation, according to Takacs and other panelists.

The panelists pointed out during the session that pro bono work is not only the right thing to do; it’s also an ethical obligation.

The American Bar Association created an aspirational goal for every lawyer — regardless of whether that attorney is in private practice, at a public law agency, in-house or working as an entrepreneur — to provide at least 50 hours of free legal assistance annually.

A corporate pro bono program allows lawyers to fulfill their ethical duty while also helping them hone their legal skills, especially on matters outside of their typical daily responsibilities.

For starters, a corporate legal department should consider the community that a program will serve, as well as the other staff members at the company who could participate, according to panelists. Finding the right mix of opportunities that draw on corporate lawyers’ skills and interests, as well as buy-in and participation from management, can encourage more participation, they added.

Arizona Court of Appeals Judge Lawrence Winthrop said it’s significant to see corporate lawyers embracing their pro bono role and responsibility. While ensuring meaningful access to the court system for all residents, including those who cannot afford traditional legal services, is of tremendous interest and concern to the judiciary, it’s also a communitywide matter, he said.

He discussed the Arizona Commission on Access to Justice, created in 2014 to form partnerships across the community and recommend innovative projects to promote access to justice for civil litigants in the state who can’t afford a lawyer or choose to represent themselves.

Beyond judges and lawyers, the commission involves philanthropic and nonprofit entities, businesses, representatives from the State Bar of Arizona and the governor’s general counsel, Judge Winthrop said.

In the past five years, the commission has developed tools and programs including an interactive, virtual legal resource center that features links to court forms and simplified instructions, video tutorials, webinars and a live-chat feature for free interaction with a law librarian.

Its collaborative structure inspired the framework for the In-House Counsel Pro Bono Commission, established by the Arizona ACC chapter to encourage and facilitate corporate legal pro bono efforts, according to panelist Kevin Groman, who chairs that commission.

“I remember thinking, how the heck are judges having so much impact and none of us know? If they have so much impact, we certainly have the ability and the strength and the support around us to have even a small impact,” said Groman.

Working with judges, law firms and legal services organizations, “makes the world smaller," he added.

The panelists also encouraged in-house lawyers to assist organizations that have pre-existing relationships with their companies.

For example, with the help of their philanthropy department, a group of employment and real estate attorneys at Chubb during an hours-long session reviewed contracts for nonprofit Habitat for Humanity International.

“This was something that they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do,” Takacs said, underscoring the strategy that Chubb lawyers, not attorneys from the firm or another organization, drive partnerships to ensure full corporate involvement.

Their goal for 2020, she added, is to partner with affinity groups at the company including Pride — which strives to create a safe, inclusive and welcoming work environment for all employees — to draw on their relationships and tie in the pro bono program with even more organizations.

As a result of the successful pro bono partnership between Chubb and Cozen counsel in Philadelphia, a group of in-house lawyers there now tackle individual cases on their own.

“They got to a point,” Takacs said, “where they actually realized, ‘Oh, I can do this.’”

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--Editing by Rebecca Flanagan.