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Dennis Stryker gives the words “corporate pro bono” a new twist. Sure, he’s put in time helping elderly San Diego residents with everyday legal needs, like composing a will. But it is the 43-year-old lawyer’s corporate know-how as general counsel to Rick Engineering Co. that really comes in handy when he’s providing free legal services. After teaming up with the San Diego Volunteer Lawyers Program, Stryker and others had a brainstorm. Why not give nonprofits and fledgling mom-and-pop businesses a checkup, in-house counsel style? The idea flew, and became the centerpiece of the pro bono session at the fall 2001 meeting of the American Corporate Counsel Association. That project and others earned Stryker ACCA’s 2001 Corporate Pro Bono Award. Stryker’s experience also proves that you don’t have to belong to a gargantuan in-house department to launch a significant pro bono program. He is the chief and only in-house lawyer at Rick Engineering, a San Diego civil engineering firm that stresses community support. The ball got rolling in the late 1990s, when Steve Smith, dean at California Western School of Law, Stryker’s alma mater, asked Stryker to submit an application to sit on the board of directors of the San Diego Volunteer Lawyers Program, or SDVLP. Stryker agreed. He tapped the expertise of Lily Garcia at CorporateProBono.org, a joint venture between ACCA and the Pro Bono Institute at Georgetown University Law Center, to come up with ideas for the pro bono presentation at ACCA’s 2001 annual meeting. ACCA pro bono volunteers held a workshop for local nonprofits. “I hope that it is sort of the new wave among corporate counsel,” said Smith, noting that he sees a spike of interest in pro bono work among in-house lawyers. More than 39 percent of respondents to a 2001 ACCA survey indicated that their corporate departments perform pro bono services, with lawyers handling an average of 25 cases annually. Esther Lardent, president at CorporateProBono.org, said that one of her organization’s aims is to help large in-house departments develop pro bono policies for the lawyers who work there. ACCA is banking on positive reinforcement. “Our goal is to exponentially increase the number of in-house counsel providing pro bono service,” declared ACCA President Frederick J. Krebs, explaining why Stryker won the organization’s pro bono award. With Stryker’s help, the San Diego ACCA chapter also linked up with SDVLP to launch a legal clinic for the elderly. Corporate counsel are also a perfect fit to help nonprofits, Stryker said, because these organizations face some of the same employment issues as their private-sector counterparts. For example, Stryker provided a legal review of an employee handbook for the San Diego YWCA. Since nonprofits often rent their office space, volunteer corporate counsel can help recognize and navigate tricky lease provisions, sometimes designed to give landlords an edge, he says. Charitable organizations may confront sophisticated incorporation problems, another area where volunteer lawyers from the private sector can help. “Most in-house counsel have at least some skills that will assist a not-for-profit,” said Stryker. What’s more, a pro bono commitment does not mean becoming a legal martyr. “You can make it work in your day,” he said. “It doesn’t mess up my weekends with my family. It doesn’t mess up my evenings with my family.” Stryker’s inspiration for his volunteer work also hits close to home: the economic and political turmoil of his wife’s childhood in Romania. She’s a lawyer, too, and she does pro bono immigration work. “We’re not able to run off to Bucharest to solve the world’s problems,” Stryker said. “We can solve a few of the problems locally.”

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