Aetna pioneered the concept of legal department pro bono in 1981, establishing Connecticut Lawyers Legal Aid for the Elderly to provide a broad spectrum of legal services to seniors in the Hartford area.

Today, that program is just one of several pro bono initiatives underway at Aetna. In recognition of the legal department’s proactive pro bono partnering with law firms, other corporations and non-profit agencies, Corporate Pro Bono (CPBO) recently awarded Aetna the Corporate Pro Bono Partner Award.

CPBO cited Aetna’s work with the Holocaust Survivors Justice Network, developed by Bet Tzedek Legal Services and Manatt, Phelps & Phillips to help U.S. Holocaust survivors apply for a one-time payment from the German government. People who had been confined in ghettos and forced to work for the Nazis could claim the payments in lieu of pensions they would have received had they worked under different circumstances.

With the help of Hartford law firm Shipman & Goodwin, about 15 Aetna lawyers conducted two clinics for Holocaust survivors in 2008 to gather the required information and documentation. They filed a total of 34 applications, and while some are still outstanding, the approval rate to date is 100 percent.

“Some of the survivors were homebound or in nursing homes, so we fanned out, took our computers and notaries, and did one-on-one visits to complete the applications,” says Faye Dion, former Aetna counsel who coordinated pro bono projects for 10 years until her retirement in December 2009.

CPBO also pointed to a longstanding partnership between Aetna and Lawyers for Children America, which trains pro bono lawyers to represent abused and neglected children. Aetna provides office space and other in-kind contributions, and some Aetna attorneys volunteer to represent children in court.

Last year 64 percent of Aetna attorneys engaged in pro bono work. General Counsel William Casazza attributes that high participation rate to a “something for everyone” approach of offering an array of causes and types of legal work to choose from. He also points out that the company provides the tools and support volunteers need, staffing pro bono projects as they would a project for Aetna, and factoring outstanding pro bono work into bonus determinations.

“When I am encouraging those who aren’t participating I say, ‘Come join in. You will learn a lot, and you will do a lot of good, and you will feel good about yourself,’” Casazza says. “A lot of people see it that way, which is why so many people participate.”

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