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The idea of pro bono work may conjure up images of attorneys arguing dramatic death penalty cases or fighting to win political asylum for refugees. But a new group coordinating free legal services in Philadelphia recognizes that not all pro bono matters take place in a courtroom. The program, Philadelphia LawWorks, will provide lawyers to nonprofit groups and small businesses to handle transactional matters. LawWorks was launched last month by the business law section of the Philadelphia Bar Association, along with several local groups that provide referrals for free legal services. Individually, non-litigators have been taking on pro bono cases all along; there just hasn’t been a formal system for connecting transactional lawyers with transactional cases. Instead, attorneys often happen upon pro bono cases through nonprofit governing boards on which they sit or through friends in need. Philadelphia LawWorks organizers say the new project is significant because there has never before been a central organizing system for distributing transactional pro bono work to attorneys in Philadelphia. LawWorks will refer clients to volunteer lawyers who can help them with matters of tax status, incorporation, real estate and other non-litigation work. According to those involved with transactional pro bono work, there is more of it available than those in the legal field might think. “We tend to hear more about litigation pro bono work, but really, there is quite a bit of transactional legal work to be done,” said Joe Sullivan, director of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis’ pro bono program and co-chairman of the bar association’s delivery of legal services committee. “The need is really, really greater than what we are currently doing.” Attorneys affiliated with LawWorks will take on all types of clients, ranging from low-income women who want to incorporate their home-based day-care centers to nonprofit groups that need someone to draft a lease. The formation of LawWorks follows a national effort on the part of the American Bar Association to encourage transactional lawyers to take pro bono cases. For the past decade, the pro bono committee of the ABA’s business law section has been spurring local bar associations to form groups like LawWorks by providing guidance on getting started. Sometimes, the old-fashioned way, in which lawyers heard of worthy transactional pro bono projects through word-of-mouth, worked. But even lawyers who rendered pro bono service in such ways see the need for a more centralized link between needy agencies and capable attorneys. For instance, Pepper Hamilton corporate partner James Epstein heard through a friend involved with the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America that the organization’s Philadelphia and Chester County chapters planned to merge. They needed an attorney to help them decide how to proceed, so Epstein and Pepper Hamilton associate Neil Tanner helped the chapters consolidate into the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southeastern Pennsylvania. “People don’t realize that there are plenty of opportunities for pro bono outside of the litigation context,” Tanner said. “[There are] many small not-for-profits that need counseling; they need leases. A lot of work is done on the tax side, helping them achieve 501(c)(3) charitable status.” Transactional attorneys at other firms also do a significant amount of pro bono work, taking on projects such as helping Habitat for Humanity purchase old rowhouses to renovate and helping a group against sexual violence attain nonprofit tax status. Sharon Browning, executive director of the Philadelphia Volunteers for the Indigent Program, which provides legal services to low-income persons, said the program would tap into a huge pool of attorneys who have historically been underused for pro bono work. She said transactional lawyers often want to take on pro bono cases but feel uncomfortable venturing into the courtroom. “‘Lawyers want to do good; they just don’t want to do it badly,’” Browning recalled a transactional lawyer having said. “They’re afraid of malpractice. They’re afraid they don’t know what they’re doing.” John Wright, a business and finance partner at Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll, said lawyers are not going to take on a pro bono assignment unless they feel confident that they will be able to handle the matter properly. But, he said, they will gladly do pro bono work in their area of expertise. The new project “enables people to give back to their profession, as the profession’s code exhorts you to do, and provides a mechanism for you to do it in a way that benefits the community and makes you feel good,” said Wright, who led the bar association’s business law section during the project’s planning stages. According to William Woodward, a professor at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law, who co-chaired the business law section’s pro bono committee, the first step in promoting Philadelphia LawWorks will be to “alert people that they need lawyers.” Some nonprofits and small businesses do not know they need an attorney until it is too late; that is, until they are already in legal trouble. LawWorks staff will meet with community organizations to educate their members about when to call a lawyer. Then, when someone contacts one of the city’s free legal service providers, he will be referred to Philadelphia VIP, which will call one of LawWorks’ volunteer lawyers. There are about 35 lawyers in LawWorks’ volunteer bank. Woodward is hoping the list will grow to 200 or 300 attorneys once the program gets going. According to Steve Buvel, who heads Community Legal Services’ economic development unit, the bar association’s backing is one of the most important aspects of the project. LawWorks will be able to help more clients because the bar association is on board, he said. “There’s financial support, there is the marketing and outreach, getting the word out … having the bar association associated with it,” Buvel said. Wright said that VIP will cover the initial funding of LawWorks on a “shoestring budget” until a dedicated source of funding can be uncovered or it will become part of VIP’s overall budget. In the longer term, Wright said that the steering committee of local attorneys could suggest funding resources. And according to Woodward, any extra attention pro bono transactional work gets will be well deserved. Although pro bono litigation gets most of the press, Woodward said, volunteer transactional cases are the truly interesting ones. “[Transactional] clients are typically businesses of some kind, and they are much more different from one another in many ways than the individuals who wind up getting traditional legal services from pro bono lawyers,” Woodward said. “Most litigation is destructive and most business law work is constructive, and that’s really a fundamental difference. “It’s not, ‘We saved your house from the landlord or from the foreclosing bank,’” Woodward said. “It is that we’ve helped you build a house, in a way.” While LawWorks is not yet listed on the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Web site among the city’s other pro bono legal services organizations, interested lawyers may contact Woodward directly at his Temple Law School office, at (215) 204-8984 or Browning of VIP at (215) 523-9560.

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