Attorneys at Houston-based Marathon Oil Co. have been involved in pro bono work for years, but it wasn’t until 2008 when then-general counsel Bill Schwind charged a committee of senior attorneys with instituting a formal program. 

Now, just more than four years after its inception, the company’s voluntary program consistently sees participation rates of at least 75 percent, and total pro bono hours have increased every year. “Once you’ve done it and you realize you can do it, and you get that reward of feeling like you helped somebody, it’s natural to go back,” says, Sylvia Kerrigan, Marathon’s executive vice president, general counsel and secretary.

Many of the company’s pro bono accomplishments involve immigration matters, including immigrant juvenile status cases, which aim to assist undocumented children who have been abused, abandoned or neglected to obtain lawful permanent residence in the U.S. 

In one especially dramatic instance, Dick Horstman, a former company attorney for whom Marathon’s program is named, won legal status for a 3-year-old girl facing deportation to Mexico. If deported, she would have been returned to the custody of her father, who had murdered the girl’s mother.

“A lot of these kids … if they go home, it is a matter of life and death,” says Karen Lukin, senior counsel and Marathon’s pro bono coordinator. “All the cases we do are important … but in [immigration] cases, you can really see that you’re making a difference.”

But the program’s scope goes well beyond immigration cases, also encompassing work with organizations such the Houston Volunteer Lawyers Program. Marathon partners with the organization at least four times a year to host legal clinics, where low-income people are matched with pro bono attorneys.

At one of these clinics, Lukin met an elderly cancer patient who feared losing his home after the county upped the taxes on the property. An hour-long hearing was all it took to save the man’s house. “For a lawyer, it’s easy to put on some evidence and prove your case, but he was just in tears when he came to a [clinic] wondering where he was going to get some help,” Lukin says. 

For companies looking to establish and sustain their own pro bono programs, Lukin offers three pieces of advice. First, she says, companies should gauge what causes interest their employees. Before launching its program, Marathon’s pro bono committee identified 35 possible categories of pro bono work and then interviewed all law department members about their top areas of interest. “You have to do the work that people are interested in doing because no matter how glorious your goals are, if you don’t have people interested in it … it won’t be successful,” Lukin says. 

Second, she advises companies to recognize the pro bono achievements of their employees. Marathon does this with by regularly updating a law department bulletin board with significant accomplishments.

Finally, she cites the importance of management support, noting that at Marathon, top-level legal department members, including Kerrigan, set an example by doing pro bono work of their own. “Seeing that your boss thinks it’s important and encourages you to do it, that makes people feel they can step up,” she says.