A year ago, John Frantz, vice president and associate general counsel at Verizon, never would have guessed he’d now be spearheading a pro bono program that involves nearly a third of the company’s legal staff. But all it took was one question to set the ball in motion.

“I asked Randy [Milch, Verizon's GC], ‘Would you like me to negotiate malpractice insurance for pro bono work?’” says Frantz, who wanted Verizon to be prepared should the legal department decide to do pro bono work. Inspired by the thought, Milch asked Frantz if he would develop a pro bono program for Verizon’s domestic legal staff.

From that conversation sprung a program targeting three areas: legal support for veterans and victims of domestic violence, and education at low-income schools. The initiative kicked off in November 2009, and at press time, 100 legal staffers had participated in pro bono work, with another 100 having been trained.

Frantz reached out to DLA Piper, which has a robust pro bono program and, fortuitously, has offices in nearly all of Verizon’s 21 locations. With additional assistance from the Pro Bono Institute, Frantz got Verizon’s program up and running in less than six months.

“[The program] provides an opportunity to work in an area that’s not part of their day in, day out practice,” says DLA Piper Pro Bono Partner Lisa Dewey, who represents the firm in its partnership with Verizon. “The attorneys get to do something they’re really passionate about.”

When assisting victims of domestic violence, for example, a Verizon attorney might pair with a woman who has a restraining order against a partner and represent her in litigation. Because a case like that typically takes about a week, attorneys can easily participate during a lull in their regular work cycle.

Attorneys can also get permission to work on their own pro bono projects. John Thorne, senior vice president and deputy general counsel at Verizon, has provided legal support to The Bishop John T. Walker School for Boys, a startup elementary school in Washington, D.C., that opened its doors in September 2008. From the start, Thorne has provided a full range of legal services to the school.

In-house lawyers have an advantage when it comes to doing pro bono work for a non-profit because they’re used to working on long-term projects, he says.

“Outside lawyers get well-defined, pre-chewed projects,” he says. “In-house lawyers can anticipate what’s going to happen well before it becomes a problem. They’re used to thinking in practical business terms.”

Let InsideCounsel know about your legal department’s pro bono projects. E-mail mswanton@insidecounsel.com.