Back in 2000, Peter A. Gutermann was general counsel for Pratt & Whitney and was looking for pro bono projects for himself and his fellow corporate counsel. But opportunities were difficult to find.

“[Corporate counsel] weren’t really out in the community doing pro bono activities,” Gutermann recalled. “I was more involved in voluntary activities with church and family. I didn’t see much opportunity for in-house pro bono work.”

So where Gutermann saw a void, he helped fill it by connecting with a fledgling program then called the Nonprofit Pro Bono Initiative. The NPBI, which is now known as the Pro Bono Partnership, is a White Plains, N.Y.-based group that provides free legal assistance in various matters to qualifying nonprofit organizations in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York.

Gutermann saw a natural fit for in-house counsel, who could lend their business-side legal skills to organizations that needed them. So he developed a partnership with the University of Connecticut School of Law to obtain office space and then reached out to major Hartford corporations like Aetna and The Hartford to create a stronger Connecticut presence. “We were trying to get other GCs interested in funding the program,” Gutermann said. “With perseverance and luck, we put together this program.”

The goal was to match nonprofits in need of business-legal help with experienced corporate counsel who could assist with lease agreements, contracts with suppliers or employee disputes, for example.

“We felt we could help with those types of matters so the nonprofits can keep that money that would’ve been spent on an attorney and spend it on their own programming,” said Gutermann, who earlier this year was named general counsel for United Technologies’ Propulsion & Aerospace Systems, a new division of Pratt & Whitney’s parent company.

Today, the Pro Bono Partnership has grown considerably to include large corporations such as General Electric and IBM, and corporate counsel have assisted more than 1,700 non-profit organizations. Gutermann is largely credited with growing the Connecticut segment of the program, and he has been celebrated for participating with several dozen Pratt & Whitney attorneys over the years to help Connecticut nonprofits.

For their efforts, Gutermann and the Pratt & Whitney legal department have earned the Connecticut Law Tribune’s Legal Departments of the Year Pro Bono and Community Service Award. They will be honored, along with other winners, at a ceremony next month at the Hartford Club.

“Peter shows a commitment to taking on pro bono projects himself, and that culture inspires other in-house attorneys to take on projects,” said Priya Morganstern, director of the Pro Bono Partnership’s Hartford program. “Pratt & Whitney has really had a positive impact not just in the non-profit community but in the whole community that is served by these various nonprofits.”

Bigger Volunteer Pool

Pratt & Whitney attorneys have served in their pro bono roles as primary counsel for various legal matters over the years, including contracts, real estate deals, employment law issues, corporate governance matters and mergers. And as funding diminished for many nonprofits, liquidations became more common last year. One lawyer logged approximately 65 hours of this type of work, which led to the creation of a dissolution handbook for non-profit organizations.

Gutermann has been a fund-raising leader for the Pro Bono Partnership while serving on the partnership’s board over the past several years. “Peter has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars on our behalf and helped enlarge our volunteer pool significantly,” said Richard S. Hobish, executive director of the Pro Bono Partnership. “From day one, Peter has been an outstanding and highly effective ambassador for the Partnership in Hartford and beyond. Simply put, without his leadership, the Hartford program might not exist and most certainly would not be the high-impact, successful program it is today.”

Gutermann said it was easy to get Pratt & Whitney attorneys excited and involved in pro bono work because there were plenty of fellow attorneys who could step in and assist if the initial attorney was pulled away for Pratt & Whitney business.

“That removes one of the main obstacles to people taking on a project,” Gutermann said. “Lawyers recognize there is a public service component to what we do. It wasn’t hard to convince people that this is a good thing to do.”

Gutermann has eagerly jumped into pro bono work himself and takes pride in the help he provides.

Through the Pro Bono Partnership, he worked with the West Hartford Citizens for Peace and Justice to establish that organization as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. And he partnered with the Hartford Marathon Foundation to review that organization’s bylaws and articles of incorporation and update their corporate governance.

“They are recognized as a top-level organization, and we wanted to have a corporate structure in place that is consistent with that status,” Gutermann said. “To have better corporate governance is a valuable tool for an organization. They now have a detailed process for electing board members, a conflict of interest policy and a structure for board committees.”

Veterans Groups

Pratt & Whitney’s pro bono activities have spread beyond the Pro Bono Partnership. In-house attorneys offer free legal services through programs such as Lawyers for Children America, Statewide Legal Services and New Haven-based Children in Placement Inc., which helps abused and neglected children find safe, permanent homes.

Pratt & Whitney and UTC attorneys also have been working with veterans groups in the New Haven area to represent veterans in eviction cases brought by landlords.

And Pratt & Whitney attorneys regularly volunteer as bar examiners that handle state bar admissions matters, town ethics committee members and in community and religious leadership positions.

Whether through the Pro Bono Partnership or other outlets, Gutermann’s dedication to pro bono work has clearly filtered through various levels of the Pratt & Whitney/UTC legal departments.

“I always felt it was my obligation to get involved, and it’s just something I want to do,” Gutermann said. “I’m gratified that so many other lawyers have supported this. That speaks to the quality people we have in the legal department. But the jobs our nonprofits are doing have a greater impact on our community than the impact we have.” •

Legal Departments

Of The Year Awards 2012