Karen Canon, Chief Regulatory Counsel at U.S. Bank.
Karen Canon, Chief Regulatory Counsel at U.S. Bank. ()

Fifteen years ago, Minneapolis law firm Dorsey & Whitney launched a legal aid clinic with two nonprofits and what was considered an unusual additional partner at the time — the in-house legal department of U.S. Bancorp.

Today, the company’s pro bono program is involved with no less than 15 legal aid organizations and legal aid clinics. More than half of its 94 attorneys in the United States and its paralegals volunteer time. And the bank continues to expand its pro bono footprint.

Although law firms rather than in-house departments get the most attention for their pro bono work, Minneap­olis-based U.S. Bancorp is at the forefront in donating legal expertise to underserved people and groups.

U.S. Bancorp, parent company of U.S. Bank, does most of its pro bono work in the Twin Cities area, particularly with low-income residents and organizations, as well as with the region’s growing immigrant community.

The bank helped launch the Brian Coyle Legal Clinic, which serves a Minneapolis neighborhood with a large East African population.

The company’s in-house team also works with a variety of specialty legal aid clinics that provide advice on such matters as domestic abuse, housing and estate planning.

“The lawyers and the legal assistants at U.S. Bank have a broad and deep commitment to doing pro bono work,” said Perry Wilson, a recently retired partner at Dorsey who remains active in pro bono programs. “They are one of the leaders.”

Karen Canon, U.S. Bancorp senior vice president and associate general counsel, was instrumental in establishing the company’s pro bono program. Before she joined the bank in 1998, Canon was executive director of the Volunteer Lawyers Network, a pro bono nonprofit in Minneapolis.

When Canon moved to U.S. Bancorp, few corporate legal departments were involved in pro bono programs, but she persuaded her superiors that legal aid aligned nicely with the bank’s commitment to community service. “It was not a hard sell,” Canon said.

Participation in pro bono matters by the bank’s busy in-house attorneys increased. Last year, 69 percent of the bank’s attorneys donated their time to pro bono causes, along with 52 percent of its paralegals, Canon said. The company did not provide the total hours contributed. “You just have to find time and convince others to make it work,” she said. “That’s why it’s so important for it to come down from the top.”

U.S. Bancorp’s pro bono program has long had the support of the company’s general counsel, first under Lee Mitau, who retired in 2013, and now under Jim Chosy.

“Our pro bono program allows us to serve the community and meet our professional obligation, while providing excellent growth and development opportunities,” said Chosy, the company’s executive vice president, general counsel and secretary. “The program also generates tremendous camaraderie.”

COMPANY BIO

Name of company: U.S. Bancorp
Headquarters: Minneapolis
Industry: Banking
No. of lawyers in Twin Cities area: 73
No. of U.S. lawyers outside Twin Cities: 21
No. of lawyers outside U.S.: 11
General counsel: Jim Chosy

KEYS TO SUCCESS

Build strong partnerships with legal-­service providers that provide the volunteer opportunities in areas of greatest need, law firms that can team with corporate counsel, and community partners that can coordinate other needed services for the clients.

Get support of your general counsel or other senior leaders to create a strong, effective pro bono program with participation beyond the core of highly committed attorneys.

Most importantly, always remember that pro bono is about the people we are serving, not about the attorneys.

— Karen Canon