Having a formal pro bono program in place—complete with a large legal department, chairs and co-chairs of a pro bono committee, and official pro bono projects—isn’t always necessary to make a difference or be lauded for the effort. In fact, one small legal department recently did exactly that.  

In 2011, the legal department of auto parts retailer Pep Boys – Manny, Moe & Jack was named “Pro Bono and Community Service Legal Team of the Year” by Philadelphia-based publication The Legal Intelligencer. The award specifically recognized Pep Boys’ legal team—made up of only four lawyers—for its work with the Homeless Advocacy Project (HAP), which provides free legal support to homeless individuals and families in Philadelphia.

The legal department first started working with the organization in 2009, when Exelon Corp. sponsored a birth certificate clinic for HAP in Philadelphia and invited Pep Boys’ lawyers to join. Getting a birth certificate is easy to do in most states, but not Pennsylvania, where an individual seeking a birth certificate must have a lawyer. “A birth certificate is usually the first thing an indigent person needs to get benefits, get into a medical program or find work,” explains Pep Boys’ Brian Zuckerman, senior vice president, general counsel and secretary. “So a lot of folks who don’t have their birth certificates don’t have a means of getting one.”

Pep Boys’ involvement in that clinic marked the beginning of a beneficial relationship with HAP. Soon after, HAP’s executive director Marsha Cohen asked the Pep Boys lawyers if they’d like to begin providing pro bono services at the Stenton Family Manor, a local homeless shelter. Zuckerman and his team—along with lawyers from a partnership with DLA Piper—were happy to oblige.

For the past few years, the group of lawyers has visited the home every few months for an evening and helps residents out with minor legal problems, such as obtaining birth certificates and managing debt collectors. “These small ways we can help really makes a big difference to the individual,” Zuckerman says.

Additionally, Janice Levin, Pep Boys’ senior employment and litigation counsel, now sits on HAP’s board of directors, helping support the non-profit organization through fundraising efforts, among other activities.

Although the team was happy to win the pro bono award last year, they are happier that it is helping push their cause forward. Zuckerman says he’s received several calls from other lawyers about getting involved in pro bono work.

“It has raised awareness that there are opportunities to get involved in the pro bono effort,” says Josh Talley, Pep Boys’ senior real estate counsel. Levin agrees. “There are a lot of opportunities—even for small legal departments like ours—that don’t have to take a lot of time but make a huge difference,” she says.