In 1997, pro bono legal work wasn’t on the radar screen of most general counsel. But Ben Heineman Jr., then-general counsel of General Electric, believed the skills of in-house counsel should be put to work to benefit the community. He encouraged now-retired GE Corporate Counsel Bob Healing to conceptualize a program that would bring much-needed legal assistance to non-profit organizations in Westchester County, N.Y., and Fairfield County, Conn. The result was the Pro Bono Partnership, which now involves 175 legal departments and law firms located in a broad swath of New York, Connecticut and New Jersey.
The Partnership staff reaches out to leaders of non-profit organizations, assesses their legal needs and identifies a volunteer attorney to help them. Mark Nordstrom, who heads GE’s labor and employment practice and coordinates pro bono activity worldwide, says the model gives transactional lawyers a place at the pro bono table.
“They are not used to going to court, but they are very capable in terms of writing personnel policies, or looking at an IP situation or combining two chapters of the United Way into one to save money,” he says.
Nordstrom, who sits on the Partnership board along with Heineman and current GE General Counsel Brackett Denniston III, cites the example of Bridge House, a Bridgeport, Conn.-based non-profit serving people with psychiatric disabilities.
“It’s three people running an organization that serves 200 people,” he says. “If someone claims discrimination, they are totally at a loss. They either have to hire counsel, which can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars, or they can use a volunteer like myself. In 50 hours I can take a huge amount of stress off their minds so they can serve the clients who need their expertise. You only have to see this once or twice and you get it.”
The Partnership’s success spurred GE to take the leading role in setting up an affiliated organization in Atlanta, where the corporation’s energy business is based, and it is exploring replicating the model in other cities. Nordstrom also promotes GE attorney involvement in a wide range of organizations including KIND, the pro bono immigration services organization founded by Microsoft’s legal department; Dress for Success; and Special Olympics. A new focus is on developing opportunities for GE’s 350 attorneys overseas, a challenge in places where laws restrict pro bono work.
But the commitment to the Partnership continues, with GE providing the services of about three dozen attorneys to handle matters each year.
“Without GE, this organization would not exist,” says Richard Hobish, executive director of the Pro Bono Partnership. “They are not only the largest corporate contributor, they also have given us so much credibility and helped us with outreach to so many other companies. The feeling here is that if we need to get something done, we know we can count on GE.”