A few weeks ago one of our antitrust lawyers walked into my office with a big smile and an energetic gait. He had just returned from court, fresh from a decisive victory and happy to share his story.
Interestingly, his case that day had nothing to do with antitrust law. He and another Microsoft lawyer had just won a pro bono case, securing political asylum for a young refugee from Eritrea. Before fleeing that country, their client had been beaten and imprisoned for five months. Why? He had merely gone to a prison to inquire about his father, who had been taken away by the government after speaking out on behalf of political dissidents.
The victory opened the door to a new and better life for this client. It was the type of legal service that was meaningful, rewarding and representative of one of the legal profession’s greatest traditions.
The nation’s bar associations and leading law firms have long championed the responsibility to provide legal representation for those who cannot afford it. Many in-house counsel have done their share as well–but the need for pro bono service remains great. The time has come for corporate legal departments to work together and better contribute to fulfilling this important responsibility.
Legal departments have matured into large, diversified and sophisticated providers of legal services. We now attract some of the best and brightest lawyers in our profession. In short, we are in a position to do more than ever before to contribute pro bono resources.
Pro bono work also enriches the experiences we offer our staff lawyers and rounds out the departments in which we work by connecting lawyers with new people, issues and the broader community.
There’s no doubt that the creation of a strong pro bono program requires careful thought. At Microsoft we’ve been working on this for more than five years, and we’re still learning important lessons.
For example, we’ve found it useful to strike a balance between diverse opportunities and a “signature program” that makes sense for our company. In the latter area we’ve focused on political asylum cases for refugees, especially refugee children–a fitting cause, given our own internationally diverse employee population. This signature program also builds on the expertise of our in-house immigration legal group, which is one of the largest such groups in corporate America.
We’ve also found it helpful to partner with other legal providers. We founded a program that pools resources from local law firms, the ABA and others to coordinate our legal services for refugees.
The good news is that there is now a national vehicle through which we can all advance corporate pro bono work. With the support of the ACC and the Pro Bono Institute, a number of chief legal officers last year launched the Corporate Pro Bono Challenge.
The Challenge is a simple, voluntary statement of commitment to pro bono service. It sets aspirational goals to encourage and promote pro bono service throughout a company’s legal department, using a metric–breadth of participation–that is easy to track and meaningful to in-house lawyers.
Already 56 legal departments have joined the Challenge. Our hope is to top the century mark before the end of the year.
At Microsoft I continue to be excited by the pro bono opportunities our lawyers pursue. Given our situation, it’s not surprising that we have one of the country’s largest in-house antitrust groups. What is surprising, perhaps, is that each of our antitrust lawyers decided to take on a pro bono refugee case this year. They’re just as proud of their refugee work as they are of their antitrust counsel. And I couldn’t be prouder of them for this dedication.
If you’re interested in learning more about what pro bono work can do for your legal department, check out the information at www.corporateprobono.org. Working together, we can all contribute more to this important cause.
Brad Smith is the senior VP, general ?? 1/2 counsel and corporate secretary of Microsoft Corp.