Big Washington firms like Covington & Burling are known for their long-standing commitment to pro bono matters. Legal departments at multinational corporations like defense contractor Northrop Grumman Corp. aren’t.

Sheila Cheston, 54, is trying to change that as head of Northrop’s 100-lawyer legal department, by instituting a pro bono and community-service program.

“It helps to create an engaged work force that feels good about where they work,” Cheston said. “If you work somewhere and you’re engaged, you’ll give 120 percent. If you’re not engaged, you’re going to do the bare minimum and then go home.”

Lawyers at the world’s largest builder of warships provide pro bono legal services for military families coping with extended overseas tours for soldiers, they help homeless veterans get benefits and they volunteer with the Street Law organization, which provides classroom programs on law and human rights in inner-city neighborhoods and other disadvantaged school districts.

Cheston previously was a partner at the firm then known as Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering and also served as a special White House counsel in the Clinton administration in its effort to fend off Whitewater and other probes. A protégé of Clinton’s White House counsel Lloyd Cutler, she was tapped to become general counsel of the U.S. Air Force in 1994 at the age of 35. From 2002 to 2009, she was a general counsel and vice president at U.K.-based BAE Systems Inc.’s U.S. subsidiary before jumping to Northrop in 2010. Though Northrop’s pro bono effort is in its first year, Cheston has hope the company’s shareholders will recognize its value.

“When you’re helping a homeless veteran to get benefits that he or she wouldn’t [otherwise], you’re learning problem-solving and developing professionally,” she said. “It enhances the reputation of Northrop Grumman. I think there are a host of reasons why this is not just a feel-good thing.”