Deborah Kaye, managing director and senior managing counsel of BNY Mellon/Photo: BNY Mellon
Deborah Kaye, managing director and senior managing counsel of BNY Mellon/Photo: BNY Mellon

When Jane Sherburne joined The Bank of New York Mellon Corp. as general counsel in 2010, instituting a formal pro bono program was high on her list of priorities. Fortunately, the bank’s senior managing counsel, Deborah Kaye, a self-described “pro bono junkie” who has been involved in pro bono work since she was 15 years old, was more than willing to spearhead the initiative.

Kaye put together a pro bono committee, comprising members from different company offices, who worked together to identify projects that interested lawyers in each region. The company also reached out to Corporate Pro Bono, a joint project of the Pro Bono Institute and the Association of Corporate Counsel, which provided them with resources including templates and workshops.

Now, just 17 months after the program’s founding, 110 BNY Mellon lawyers and staffers—or roughly 45 percent of the company’s attorneys—have logged 400 hours of pro bono work. Kaye estimates that the legal department has worked on about 35 projects in that time.

Some of these projects draw on the bank’s expertise in finance and business—e.g. a partnership with an outside law firm that provides microfinance help to women in Haiti—but others run the gamut from helping disabled veterans apply for benefits to assisting transgendered people in the process of changing their names. 

The first pro bono project that the legal department took on was working with the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund, an effort that the New York-based company found especially meaningful. “That was not only because it was our first test case and we got to track how well … the mechanics of the program [worked], but since we’re here downtown, it impacted the lives of so many of our colleagues,” Kaye says.

More recently, both lawyers and nonlawyers within the company answered phones and counseled callers about various state election laws while working with the Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights National Election Protection Program during the 2012 presidential elections. The legal assistance was especially important since Hurricane Sandy had temporarily displaced many voters to new jurisdictions, creating confusion about proper voting procedures.

Efforts like the above haven’t gone unnoticed; BNY Mellon has racked up awards from the Pro Bono Institute, the Legal Aid Society and the New York City Bar’s Justice Center. The company has also become a source of information for other businesses looking to start their own programs.

One piece of advice that Kaye gives to such organizations: Don’t be afraid to think big. Although it was difficult to establish pro bono programs in offices around the world—including New York, Boston, New Jersey, Pittsburgh, Singapore, London and Hong Kong—Kaye says the extra effort has paid dividends.

For instance, BNY Mellon’s pro bono team acts in concert with the company’s Corporate Social Responsibility program, which allows the legal department to receive matching donations when it helps certain non-profits. The coordination also gives pro bono projects more companywide exposure, and helps lawyers enlist support from their colleagues on the business side.

The pro bono program’s geographic diversity has also helped to foster a sense of camaraderie among lawyers separated by miles, Kaye says: “It didn’t just make it a New York thing; it made it a BNY Mellon legal department project, and I do think that everybody feels like a part of something.”