LIKE SPEED DATING: BASF in-house counsel Debra Goldsmith, Richard Reid, Matthew Lepore, Sonny Nkansa, Julie Wong, Tyler Stevenson and Melanie Brown take part in the company’s Smorgasbono, fielding fast questions from a multitude of clients. (Carmen Natale)
Melanie Brown doesn’t do pro bono work to get awards—she does it because she’s always been committed to helping others. BASF’s assistant general counsel and her colleagues do, however, garner kudos for their volunteer work.
Brown, a chemist by training and patent attorney by trade, says pro bono work has made her something of an expert in nonprofit law as well.
“There are not that many opportunities to do pro bono IP work,” she said. Instead, by volunteering through the Pro Bono Partnership, Brown most often helps nonprofit clients with issues such as organizing corporate governance policies and filing for tax-exempt status.
As the BASF legal department’s pro bono coordinator, she has successfully used her powers of persuasion to “suggest” that her colleagues “might” want to take on “certain matters”—adding with a chuckle that they sometimes “find it hard to say no.”
In 2013, 23 of the company’s 30 New Jersey-based attorneys worked on 49 matters for the Pro Bono Partnership, totaling up 147 volunteer hours. BASF support staff typed and revised contracts, and prepared trademark applications and other documents for pro bono clients.
The Partnership, which puts lawyers together with nonprofits seeking free legal advice, named Brown Corporate Volunteer of the Year in 2011. BASF’s legal department won the award in 2012.
General counsel Matt Lepore, who joined the Florham Park, N.J., chemical company in January, is a pro bono booster. “It’s very important, as the leader of a big legal department, to make it clear that I believe in this, and that if you want to spend time” [volunteering], I will support this effort,” he said.
Lepore began his volunteer lawyering in the mid-1990s as a young associate at King & Spalding in Atlanta. He’s answered questions on Law Day, written contracts for people getting a home through Habitat for Humanity—and, as a personal commitment, swung a hammer to help build a Habitat house.
“Attorneys feel good about pro bono work,” he said. “It makes…[them] feel good about their jobs. …Doing work outside your day job is an opportunity to go to court and an opportunity to interact directly with clients that many legal departments and big-firm attorneys don’t always get.”
Last year, Melanie Brown helped the Pro Bono Partnership organize the first “Smorgasbono,” in which 15 nonprofit clients gathered at BASF for an afternoon of legal advice. Seven BASF attorneys worked alongside lawyers from Jackson Lewis, Paul Weiss, Becton Dickinson and Medco.
The name Smorgasbono was Brown’s brainchild—”It just popped into my head,” she said— and it never fails to bring a smile.
Before the attorneys met their clients, they attended a one-hour presentation by the Partnership on laws and ethical considerations relating to nonprofits.
Rather than getting answers to one type of legal question, as is often the case at pro bono gatherings, those attending the four-hour Smorgasbono client’s session could discuss a variety of concerns. Their representatives spoke one-on-one with attorneys about issues ranging from contracts to insurance, intellectual property to real estate.
Clients included the Interfaith Food Pantry of Morris County, Morris Habitat for Humanity, the Great Swamp Watershed Association, Meals on Wheels and the Timothy Murphy Playhouse, among others.
“It was a great experience,” said Brown, who initially hadn’t been sure the format would work. “There was a mix of attorneys with different experience. They would sit down with clients and listen.”
Some cases required additional time, so BASF attorneys ended up donating a total of 60 hours to the program.
Jackson Lewis partner John Sander, who heads the firm’s International Group and is also president of the Pro Bono Partnership’s board of directors, helped clients with labor and employment issues. Speaking as a former in-house lawyer, Sander said corporate counsel are particularly good at working this way, because they are used to dealing with clients who besiege them with unanticipated questions on a daily basis.
“It was fantastic for us,” said Paul Weiss pro bono counsel Rebecca Behr. Her firm sent several partners with expertise in areas such as corporate law, governance, tax and intellectual property. “Melanie Brown is great to work with. She’s well known in the pro bono community,” said Behr, whose full-time job is to help Paul Weiss attorneys find volunteer opportunities. Another plus, she said, was that “it’s always great to…interact with a new group of people.”
This year’s Smorgasbono, held in May, was staffed by BASF and attorneys from Honeywell, Kirkland & Ellis, Ogletree Deakins and Servilla Whitney.
Lawyers manned tables organized by the type of legal question involved, and clients moved from table to table for a total of four 45-minute sessions.
“It’s kind of like speed dating,” said Theresa Egler, a shareholder at Ogletree in Morristown and a former BASF deputy general counsel. Egler, who represents employers in everyday life, sat at one of several tables dedicated to employment issues.
“One of [the clients] wanted to be sure their [employee] handbook was up to date,” she said. “One had [a Family and Medical Leave Act] question. There was a performance management question. There was a question regarding health care.” Egler said the continuing education credits she earned were an added bonus. “It was fun…I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
Honeywell’s Erika Wilson, an intellectual property attorney, helped nonprofits with Internet issues. “Clients had questions about things like getting new systems up to speed or migrating [servers],” she said. Wilson participated because “it’s always great to give back. …The people there feel very appreciative.”
“It was very refreshing and just very interesting,” said Atif Khawaja, a litigator at Kirkland & Ellis, who is also his firm’s pro bono coordinator. He said the Smorgasbono is a good way to deliver legal services to nonprofits. “I like the idea of partnering in-house lawyers with out-of-house lawyers. Most [people] imagine pro bono as being litigation oriented—immigration, death penalty, housing court.” These clients, though, were asking questions about how to manage their organizations, which Khawaja said lend themselves to the transactional skills of many in-house attorneys.
Scott Servilla of IP boutique Servilla Whitney said corporate bylaws were a hot topic at his table. Servilla said he has come to understand the many needs of nonprofits through his work as a volunteer firefighter. “A general attorney will give a discount” when helping a nonprofit, he said, “but [they] don’t do it for free.”
Also in 2013, among other pro bono activities, company lawyers participated in the BASF Kids’ Lab at the BRICK Avon Academy in Newark. Second-graders, outfitted in donated aprons and goggles, watched Brown and another BASF attorney-scientist teach a simple chemistry lesson, demonstrating how much fun science can be. “The kids went to the cafeteria for lunch wearing their BASF outfits,” said Brown. “I wished I’d had my camera. They were so cute.”
Matt Lepore’s predecessor held a dinner honoring pro bono participants, and Lepore plans to continue the tribute. “That kind of recognition really helps,” said Brown. “Plus me reaching out.” While these activities do take time away from a lawyer’s demanding day, she added, “I’m busy, and I can make the same excuse, but I feel committed.” •