Deborah Kaye, left, head of the pro bono committee and Jane Sherburne, general counsel (NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)
When BNY Mellon’s top in-house lawyer Jane Sherburne joined Bank of New York Mellon Corporation four years ago, she immediately recognized the need for a formal pro bono program for her department.
Sherburne enlisted the help of legal services groups like New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, where she serves on the board of directors, to ask where BNY Mellon lawyers could help. By 2012, Sherburne had formed a pro bono committee of in-house lawyers in the New York office, chaired by senior managing counsel Deborah Kaye, to vet potential projects.
The New York office alone, with 78 attorneys, logged about 500 hours of pro bono work last year. Their many projects have allowed them to provide legal advice to seniors, veterans, small business owners, transgender people and low-income women, among others.
“I came to this job with an understanding that pro bono is an obligation,” Sherburne said. “Just because we work in-house doesn’t mean we are somehow cleansed of that obligation.”
Very few in-house departments have completed as many hours or taken on as many projects as BNY Mellon, said Marnie Berk, director of pro bono programs for NYLPI.
“BNY Mellon really stands out,” Berk said. “In a short time they’ve ramped up and have been able to provide a nice cross-section and diversity of projects.”
Like most other corporate legal departments, BNY Mellon lacks the institutional support, nonprofit partnerships and steep pro bono experience of major law firms, said Berk. Most of BNY Mellon’s lawyers have spent their careers dealing with transactional work, which means pro bono projects that call for individual client representation are not the right fit. And potential conflicts of interest with institutional clients mean BNY Mellon’s lawyers often can’t represent pro bono clients.
To get around these challenges, BNY Mellon teams with a legal services group and its outside counsel on each of its pro bono projects. That model provides “just the right backstop” to enable BNY Mellon to assist on a range of pro bono projects, Sherburne said.
Its New York office has joined Mayer Brown and the nonprofit Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, for example, to help poor, disabled seniors gain access to Social Security benefits.
BNY Mellon also partnered with Greenberg Traurig in providing free legal help in matrimonial, family and immigration law to low-income women with New York City-based Her Justice.
The department has also worked alongside the City Bar Justice Center’s Neighborhood Entrepreneur Law Project to give new business owners transactional advice on tax issues, copyrights, trademarks and patents, among other matters.
In their regular work, BNY Mellon’s in-house lawyers advise the banking and financial services firm’s corporate departments on regulatory matters and the legal aspects of new product development. Sherburne, who holds the titles of senior executive vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary, said her in-house lawyers are spread throughout BNY Mellon’s various business teams, so pro bono events provide a rare opportunity for collaboration.
“Pro bono is a good team-building exercise,” said Sherburne, whose career before BNY Mellon includes general counsel stints at Wachovia Corporation and Citigroup in addition to serving as special counsel to President Bill Clinton. “We have so many people who don’t encounter each other in their day-to-day jobs. It strengthens the department and creates a shared experience. That’s a great benefit.”
Still, without a full-time pro bono team, sometimes pro bono work is a “corner-of-the-desk side project,” she said. As the department’s manager, she said she tries to ensure lawyers have time for pro bono within their regular responsibilities.
Pro bono efforts of the New York office have spread to members of the legal team throughout the U.S. and the world. Lawyers in other U.S. offices have joined the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law on election days to ensure fair access to the ballot box and the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund to help transgender people change their legal names.
Overseas, pro bono initiatives include assisting domestic workers in Hong Kong with employment and immigration issues. In Europe, BNY Mellon lawyers work with Advocates for International Development, a charity that enlists lawyers to use their legal skills to help fight poverty.