Toni Anne Nichels, senior managing employment and human resources counsel at Xerox, found the perfect solution for an in-house lawyer with a long-term and serious commitment to pro bono.
For more than 11 years, she has been advising nonprofits on employment and personnel matters as a volunteer for the Pro Bono Partnership, a White Plains organization providing free legal services, a helpline, workshops and other resources to nonprofit groups in Westchester, Orange, Putnam and Rockland counties, as well as in Connecticut and New Jersey.
Through the partnership, Nichels has handled about 135 matters over the past decade for nearly 60 of the group’s 600 nonprofit clients.
She advises nonprofits—ranging from a child-care center to a cancer support team to Meals on Wheels—on employee hiring and termination, employee classifications, personnel policies, sexual harassment complaints, unemployment insurance and other issues, shielding those groups from what could be devastating litigation.
“One little misstep and you find it becomes the basis for some lawsuit later down the road,” said Richard Hobish, the partnership’s executive director.
Maurice Segall, the director for the partnership’s New York and Fairfield County, Conn., program, said Nichels is easily the most productive attorney among the 900 who volunteer. She has spent more than 1,500 hours working on matters for the partnership, including 150 last year, he said.
“She’s been, by far, our most prolific volunteer, head and shoulders above anyone else,” Segall said. “The clients she works for love her so much they go back to her again and again and again. The clients look to her as their employment lawyer.”
Nichels has advised the United Way of Westchester and Putnam counties in the last five years on matters such as updating its personnel policies and responding to personnel related issues, including letters of hire and terminations, said Carlene Gentilesco, COO for the United Way of Westchester and Putnam. The organization relies on volunteer lawyers like Nichels, she said.
“With the economy being the way it is, we’ve downsized several times,” Gentilesco said. “We want to do what’s legal and what’s right for the employees and we don’t want the organization to be jeopardized in any way.”
Nichels wears several other hats in the pro bono world: chair of the partnership’s volunteer advisory committee; pro bono coordinator for Xerox’ legal department; and president of the alumni association at SUNY Plattsburgh, where she also gives free legal advice.
But despite those commitments and her job at Xerox, “Toni always makes herself available and that’s critical when it comes to employment matters,” Gentilesco said.
Nichels’ work for the Pro Bono Partnership also includes creating and presenting workshops for nonprofits, speaking on topics such as sexual harassment, hiring, performance and diversity initiatives. She has spoken at 20 to 30 such workshops sponsored by the partnership.
And as chair of the volunteer advisory committee, an 18-member group of corporate counsel, she helps to recruit new volunteers for the partnership among in-house counsel, promote pro bono to legal departments, and finds law firms to partner with in-house counsel on pro bono cases.
“Almost every day I’m doing something for pro bono in one sense or another,” Nichels said.
Nichels, 46, lives in Yorktown Heights with her husband and 11-year-old daughter, and works in Xerox’ headquarters in Norwalk, Conn.
During a typical day at the office, she will consult with department heads on issues ranging from corporate diversity or security to internal policies and investigations. She also meets with members of Xerox’s human resources staff on matters such as terminations or disciplines.
Nichels also travels to meetings with Xerox subsidiaries in Palo Alto, Calif., responds to demand letters from attorneys representing ex-employees and occasionally appears in mediation for discrimination claims.
“I do everything up to the point of litigation,” she said.
In her role as pro bono coordinator for Xerox’ legal department, she promotes pro bono work to other in-house lawyers.
“I don’t sleep very much,” Nichels said, adding she wakes up at 4:30 a.m. most days to fit in family, work and pro bono responsibilities.
It can be challenging to juggle her various professional and pro bono commitments, but Nichels said Xerox is fully supportive.
“As long it doesn’t interfere with my day job, they are perfectly happy for me to soldier on,” she said.
A 1992 graduate of Notre Dame University Law School, Nichels came to Xerox in 2001 from Nixon Peabody. She said the pro bono work provides an additional layer of professional satisfaction.
“When you work for a corporation, a lot of times you can’t put a face to the people that you’re helping,” she said. “My job as an employment lawyer at Xerox is to make sure the corporation is in compliance with all applicable laws. I’m saving them dollars, but it doesn’t have that personal connection.”
Her brand of pro bono gives her the satisfaction of helping “folks whose sole mission is to help other people,” she said. “That’s a great feeling.”
“It makes me feel good that it’s not all about the almighty dollar,” she said about the practice of law. “There’s a lot of other benefits to doing what you love and doing it for folks who really need your help. I feel I’m helping a tremendous amount of people because they’re serving a lot of folks in turn.”