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For more than 15 years, the American Corporation Counsel Association (ACCA) has been urging its members to do pro bono work. Now ACCA has decided to do more than be a cheerleader. Working with the Washington, D.C., Pro Bono Institute, ACCA is raising $1 million to start a Web site called CorporatePro-Bono.Org — which is also the project’s name — that will help in-house counsel find and carry out pro bono projects. The initiative comes as large law firms’ pro bono commitments are being squeezed, and government funding for legal services is being reduced and restricted. “We sense a desire that the community is ready to do more,” says Susan Hackett, ACCA’s general counsel and senior vice president. “There are some people who will never get involved for a variety of reasons, but there are some who would if they could overcome some impediments to participation. Our total focus is to get corporation counsel to a point where they say, ‘Yes, I can,’ rather than ‘No, I can’t.’ “ The project has an advisory board of corporation counsel from several Fortune 500 companies and a partnership with the Georgetown University Law Center’s Pro Bono Institute. Because most U.S. companies’ legal departments have fewer than four lawyers, the site is mainly targeting individual in-house lawyers, who will do the work independently. Smaller legal departments looking to set up a company program can also use the database to find models and materials that might work at their company. “We will be creating materials that are really tailored to in-house lawyers because much of what is out there is very general or focused towards law firms,” says Ester Lardent, president of the Pro Bono Institute. Lardent has been meeting with service providers, including the Legal Services Corp. and other groups that match lawyers with transactional pro bono work. FINDING HOW TO HELP The database will be designed to help in-house counsel find the kind of pro bono opportunities that interest them. For example, using search criteria such as “elder law,” “weekends” and “St. Louis area,” the database will return matching opportunities that have been posted by legal services organizations, local bars, law firms or national public-interest organizations. ACCA, whose Web site gets 2.5 million “hits” a month, will also cross-sell CorporateProBono.Org by offering links to pro bono opportunities for Internet users who search for information on the database. Once a lawyer has found a project, the library section of the database will provide volunteers with information on subjects such as malpractice insurance, conflicts of interest, skills needed and training opportunities. It will also provide a network of corporate counsel who will give advice or mentoring, as well as resources and materials for corporate lawyers new to pro bono. Lardent traces the project to President Clinton’s July 1999 call to action to the legal profession on issues of diversity and pro bono, which brought ACCA and the institute together. “As we talked, it became clear we had a nice mesh of strengths and skills,” she says. “They know corporate counsel; we know pro bono.” ADDRESSING PROBLEMS The first step, Hackett says, was to address the hurdles that were keeping in-house lawyers from doing pro bono work. They included a lack of time, ignorance of how to get involved and concerns about employer disapproval. They also included intimidation at the thought of learning a new practice area, she says. “If you’re not a litigator, you can feel like you’re in over your head,” says Michael Roster, vice chairman of ACCA’s board of directors and general counsel at Golden West Financial in Oakland, Calif., who oversees a legal department of 11 lawyers. Roster says doing pro bono work is beneficial to his department: “It requires a lawyer to stand back and look at problems in different ways.” The initiative was approved last year by both boards and is set to launch in October, when it will be officially announced at ACCA’s annual meeting. At $1 million, the project’s budget is one-fourth that of ACCA’s annual budget and twice that of the Pro Bono Institute. The project is being underwritten by a grant from the Open Society Institute for the development and architecture of the Web site, budgeted at about $200,000. In addition, a number of corporations have made contributions ranging from $2,000 to $50,000. Among those contributing are Golden West Financial, Freddie Mac, Philip Morris, Merck, Monsanto and MDU Resources, a mining company in North Dakota with a five-lawyer legal department. After three years, once the front-end cost of creating the site is done, the Pro Bono Institute and ACCA expect the site to be self-sustaining through a combination of membership dues and advertisements. Lardent says it’s not clear whether the group will issue a pro bono challenge like the one that now exists for large law firms. Ten years ago, the Pro Bono Institute, working with the American Bar Association, issued a challenge to the country’s largest law firms to commit 3% percent or 5 percent of billable hours toward pro bono work. ACCA and the institute have developed a pledge to do pro bono work for corporate law officers to sign. Hackett says she hopes hundreds of general counsel sign. Thomas A. Gottschalk, general counsel for General Motors, a signer and member of the advisory board, points out that the benefits of pro bono are not just for the clients. “If corporate lawyers want to command the stature that partners in major law firms have, they have to participate in pro bono,” he says.
Implementing Good Corporate Governance. November 6-17.

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