Serving billions of customers in more than 200 countries, The Coca-Cola Co. has embedded in its corporate culture the importance of giving back to the communities it serves. And for years, the legal department had been happy to oblige through various pro bono projects, despite having no official program in place.
In 2000, when Deval Patrick (now-governor of Massachusetts) joined the Coke legal team as GC, he decided it was time for a more defined pro bono program. “We created a pro bono policy,” explains Elizabeth Finn Johnson, senior litigation & employment counsel and current chair of the pro bono committee. Johnson drafted the policy, which went into effect in early 2001. “It set forth rules, established a committee, defined projects the committee would sponsor and explained how to get other pro bono projects approved,” she adds.
Coke’s pro bono team immediately partnered up with Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation Inc. (AVLF), a non-profit dedicated to providing legal services to low-income individuals. The department’s first event was the Saturday Lawyer Program, which allowed Coke’s lawyers to visit the AVLF office and provide advice to clients who couldn’t afford legal services.
The legal department also looked to their law firms to partner on various pro bono initiatives. With King & Spalding, for example, the department created a “Wills on Wheels” program, which paired Coke and King & Spalding lawyers with individuals who otherwise couldn’t afford to create wills. The department has also teamed up with the Pro Bono Partnership of Atlanta, which matches Coke in-house lawyers with clients in need.
Today, Coke’s signature project is Street Law, which originated at Georgetown Law in 1972 to teach Washington, D.C., high-school students about the legal system and now reaches more than 30 countries. Coke partners with two Atlanta high schools. In-house counsel spend five weeks teaching students about contracts, IP, litigation and dispute resolution, and the class concludes with a trip to Coke’s headquarters. “They do workshops and solve mock legal problems,” Johnson explains. “It is always interesting to see how they come out. These kids have gotten so sophisticated.”
As if the pro bono work weren’t enough, Coke’s legal team is also actively involved in community outreach unrelated to law. The department sponsors annually two days of work at a food bank. Many in-house lawyers are also involved in Habitat for Humanity. Every other year, the legal department and King & Spalding sponsor a house–and all participating lawyers actually build that house (with the support of Habitat’s professionals).
Whether in-house lawyers are doing traditional pro bono work or other community service, Johnson believes these efforts improve overall morale within the legal department. “They feel the work they do in the community is valued,” she says. “It’s a win-win for everyone.”