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The phrases “pro bono” and “corporate counsel” never sounded natural together. But in the past two years, legal departments around the country have been searching for pro bono projects suited to the in-house lawyer. While Washington, D.C., is not in the front of the pack, some local companies have found ways to overcome traditional obstacles, and organizations including the Washington Metropolitan Area Corporate Counsel Association are starting to open doors. “There has been a tremendous amount of movement in the area” of in-house pro bono work, says Esther Lardent, president of the D.C.-based Pro Bono Institute. “Departments that didn’t have an organized activity 18 months ago are putting together programs.” Traditionally, there have been several obstacles to corporate pro bono. In-house lawyers usually work for a CEO and profit-minded shareholders, not a managing partner with a bar association pro bono benchmark to hit. Most in-house lawyers aren’t litigators, which makes them uncomfortable with the most common types of legal assistance. They usually work for one client in a small department, so open-ended cases are risky projects. And, until recently, they seldom had malpractice insurance that covered noncorporate work. In October 2000, Lardent’s group teamed up with the American Corporate Counsel Association to launch CorporateProBono.org, an initiative to increase the amount of pro bono work done by corporate legal departments. ACCA has long been encouraging its members in that direction, holding training sessions at conventions and trying to foster programs in local chapters. Several chapters have responded by acting as clearinghouses for cases, bringing small legal departments together on collective pro bono projects and providing information on corporate counsel issues like malpractice insurance and nonlitigation opportunities. WMACCA is getting into the act. “We’re looking at ways to serve as more of a clearinghouse for our members,” says board member Robert Lavet, deputy general counsel at Sallie Mae. He says that WMACCA has in recent years been building the chapter back up and gaining financial footing. Bringing the area’s many small legal departments together for WMACCA-facilitated projects is an area the chapter hopes to explore in the coming year. Sol Glasner, a former WMACCA board member and general counsel of the Mitre Corp. in McLean, Va., has a program under way that aims to do just that. In April 2001, Glasner found out about the Multi-Door Dispute Resolution Division at the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, which uses trained volunteers to staff its mediations. He used the WMACCA network to publicize the program and bring applicants together for an informational meeting with the court’s program director. “We saved all the bureaucracy of having to call the court,” he says. “We have the whole infrastructure set up for calling a meeting or a conference, [compiling] a mailing list, and the resources to do publicity.” The response was strong, with about two dozen in-house attorneys submitting applications to the court. After a rigorous selection process, three began their training last September and have been volunteering three mornings a month since. Glasner says the rejected applicants are still eager to participate, and that probably twice as many more have heard about the program and expressed interest. He’s currently looking into a program in Fairfax County, Va., that might suit the corporate counsel time constraints and skill sets. “You have to overcome the initial, ‘Gee, what can I offer?’ ” he says. “ [Mediation] is a great outlet, specifically for corporate counsel, because what we do in our daily jobs uses mediation skills.” Glasner modeled the D.C. program on a similar one in Massachusetts and expects local interest to continue to grow. “There’s a pool of people out there who were sensitized to it last time,” he says. “I think the idea of having a corporate counsel association collectively promote this and organize it is a good one.” FOOD FOR THOUGHT Several companies in the D.C. area, including Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, have long had strong pro bono programs. More recently a few other firms, such as Gaithersburg, Md.,-based Sodexho Inc., have started their own programs. Led by General Counsel Robert Stern and pro bono coordinator Scott Robins, Sodexho’s 15-person legal department drafted a pro bono policy in 2001 and set up a partnership with D.C. Central Kitchen. Sodexho, a food service and facility management company owned by Sodexho Alliance, already had an institutional relationship with the kitchen and a corporate commitment to fighting hunger. “The law department decided that we were going to do a pro bono program, and we decided to align our program with the company’s initiatives,” says Robins. By doing that, Robins says, it was much easier to get the company’s approval of the project. “What we were essentially doing was supplementing the other company efforts.” With a client like D.C. Central Kitchen, Sodexho attorneys find plenty of nonlitigation projects. They have worked on the kitchen’s 501(c)(3) status, handled tax work, and found outside counsel for trademark work, among other things. The department was also able to arrange for malpractice insurance coverage from Sodexho. Some projects can take several days, but there is no court work. The client’s needs are matched to the attorney’s capabilities. “It depends on the person’s expertise,” says Robins. “We ask for volunteers, and so far we’ve had no problem getting them.” Wheatly Aycock, a former editorial assistant at Legal Times , will be starting at Stanford Law School next month.

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