The Thomson-Reuters Foundation unveiled its new international pro bono project to a group of big firm lawyers and representatives from nongovernmental organizations in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. Dubbed TrustLaw, the effort is designed to provide a new online market for pro bono projects around the world, connecting NGOs and nonprofits in need of free legal services with law firms looking to help.
The project’s Web site, Trustlaw.org, will launch in mid-April and function like a Match.com for pro bono work, explained Monique Villa, CEO of the Thomson-Reuters Foundation. Nonprofit groups like Transparency International and Kiva.org can post descriptions of the projects they need legal help with, from analyzing the anti-corruption efforts of an NGO in Russia to tax and regulatory advice in setting up a microfinance group in Uganda. TrustLaw staff will then help translate each proposal into clear-cut legal needs that member law firms can quickly analyze to determine whether a project is something they can take on, Villa said. Firms including Latham & Watkins in the U.S. and Garrigues in Spain have already signaled their interest in the project.
The idea for the site came about more than a year ago, soon after the merger of Thomson and Reuters, Villa said. It’s an extension of the foundation’s earlier projects: AlertNet, its humanitarian news network, and its new Emergency Information Service, which was unveiled in December and put to use less than a month later, coordinating relief efforts in the aftermath of the earthquake that leveled Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
A survey of the 450 NGOs involved with AlertNet revealed that their biggest unmet need is legal assistance, Villa said. Speaking at the meeting Wednesday, Peter O’Driscoll, executive director of anti-poverty nonprofit ActionAid, said that in the 30 years he’s been working in the field, the legal framework hasn’t kept up with the explosion of new projects in the NGO sector. Groups like ActionAid, which has projects in 42 countries, need extensive legal help to make sure they don’t run afoul of foreign laws.
In addition to connecting NGOs with law firms, Villa says the site will also feature special legal research databases created by Westlaw, a Thomson-Reuters subsidiary. The first will focus on anti-corruption efforts, the second on women’s rights.
Villa, who spent her career as a journalist with Reuters and Agence France-Presse before being tapped to create TrustLaw, said she has been meeting with law firms around the world to find out what they want to see in a project like this. She discovered that pro bono work, as it is conceived in countries like the U.S. and the U.K., is a foreign concept in much of Europe, the Middle East and Asia. TrustLaw is designed in part to help spread the culture of pro bono to law firms in other parts of the world. Discussing the project on Wednesday, she explained that in setting a global standard for vetting potential projects, the site can help show firms in places like Lebanon and Guatemala which efforts are considered worthy by their peers, and just as important, which ones won’t land them in hot water. Villa said the TrustLaw has already signed up 80 members, a mix of law firms, NGOs and umbrella organizations for social entrepreneurs.
NOT ALL PRO BONO IS CREATED EQUAL
One of the difficulties of creating a pro bono program in the first place, said James Jones, managing director of Hildebrandt Baker Robbins and a former Arnold & Porter partner, is defining what should count as pro bono. “A partner says he wants to serve on the board of his local symphony orchestra. Does that count? It’s a nice thing, but not for our purposes.”
More critically, firms working on projects abroad need to know exactly who is behind the NGO they’re trying to help. “We do the background checks to make sure they’re not the mafia or al-Qaida,” Villa said Wednesday. “But sometimes a group that is good one year can become very shady three years later. We’re watching out for that.” Nina Gross, an in-house lawyer with Deloitte Financial Services Advisory, chimed in to underline the point and suggest that accounting firms like hers be included alongside law firms in TrustLaw. “We’re used to doing the due diligence on projects. In Africa and the Middle East, you have to dig really deep into the paper trail.”
Kristen Abrams, international pro bono counsel at DLA Piper and program manager of the firm’s nonprofit New Perimeter program (which has done work in Ethiopia, Mexico and Kosovo), pointed out that law firms must also be wary of the unauthorized practice of law when working with international clients. Whatever their good intentions, lawyers can potentially put their other clients in jeopardy. She said DLA is getting ready to launch a new project in Namibia. “We’ve established that it doesn’t constitute the practice of law there, but the same kind of project would in the U.S. It would be helpful to have this kind of information on each country in the [TrustLaw] database.”
Alex Counts, president and CEO of Grameen Foundation, the nonprofit microfinance group founded by Nobel Peace Prize-winning economist Muhammad Yunus, agreed that firms must be careful in what they do outside their own borders, but pointed out that Grameen still relies heavily on American firms for its international projects. “We have great local firms in places like India, but we need our American firms back home to backstop us and tell us what are the right questions to ask our local firms.”