While many attorneys envision pro bono matters in terms of lengthy litigation cases or assisting nonprofits with various legal matters such as organizational set-up, negotiating a lease and advising the board of directors, there are many matters that can be handled by all attorneys — at all experience levels.
These matters have shorter time commitments, yet provide immediate impact to both the clients and volunteers. This type of pro bono typically is called a clinical model. Your firm, company, governmental office or nonprofit can consider it as a cornerstone to your pro bono program, even if you are a team of one and do not have a formal program.
Many attorneys cannot — or do not want to — commit the time required to an on-going matter; however, when given the opportunity to volunteer for two to eight hours at a clinic, these same attorneys gladly will make the time available to participate. A “clinic in a box,” as the Pro Bono Institute calls it, is a self-contained project where the attorneys, paralegals and staff arrive at the stated time, enter with little to no preparation (attend a short training session immediately prior to the clinic or a few days prior to the clinic), participate in the clinic and have little to no follow-up. This finite time commitment, coupled with the manageable tasks required by the clinic compliment most attorneys and other legal professionals who otherwise fear taking on more lengthy matters.
The net benefits include the following:
• Many attorneys significantly increase their pro bono hours of service as compared to the hours that they otherwise would have completed without the clinic opportunities;
• The clinics provide opportunities for paralegals, legal assistants and staff to participate (assisting with the counseling of clients, notarizing and witnessing documents and greeting and checking in clients) in addition to the attorneys;
• Coordinators improve project management skills;
• Participants improve negotiation and problem identification and solving skills; and
• The work completed provides a positive overall impact to our communities, for a classic win/win situation.
Three instrumental factors to successfully utilizing clinics are organization, identifying a project that fits your attorneys’ and staff’s interests and selecting the right partners, both internal and external.
This concept sounds simple and mundane, but it takes a lot of coordination and behind the scenes preparation to make the clinic appear to be simple and uncomplicated. The not so glamorous brainstorming and planning may take place up to a year in advance if you are the primary coordinator planning multiple clinics. More typically, the heavy lifting occurs three to six weeks prior to the actual clinic and includes, among other things, finding a location (ideally this has already occurred in an earlier planning stage), coordinating transportation, identifying potential volunteers, securing commitments from more volunteers than needed (because people WILL cancel), arranging food and drinks for clients and volunteers, advertising to the potential client populations and securing funding for the costs.
Another required round of administrative time occurs the week prior to the clinic when people cancel (both clients and volunteers), questions arise based on the training or the upcoming training, and the last minute details are addressed. Finally, the day of the clinic, in some ways, can be compared to the last-minute chaos before most weddings — roll with the punches, as unanticipated challenges will arise (from running out of coffee, late arrivals, unexpected requirement of a notary, etc.).
The coordinator(s) will be pulled in many directions to problem-solve. One pearl of wisdom passed onto me from a seasoned coordinator is to have the coordinator(s), if possible, be available to float around the room and not necessarily be assigned to a client station (at least initially).
During the clinic, pause and take a break about halfway through when all the stations are hard at work – it is a really rewarding sight to see your preparation take shape in a tangible way. And then, take a picture — or 20. In addition to having photographs for internal purposes, it is a fantastic way to thank volunteers from other organizations, so try to get at least one of each volunteer in action. All communications departments desperately want pictures (preferably with a company banner or t-shirt) to include with a write-up of the clinic.
Post-clinic management is just as important, or even more so, than pre-clinic preparation. First, thank everyone involved for their assistance — your volunteers (internal to your organization and outside), partners (which may include a nonprofit, outside counsel and in-house law departments), corporate relations folks and anyone else who financially supported the clinic, communications folks who will issue press releases and/or write internal articles to publicize the effort, and your leadership for supporting employees’ pro bono efforts. Thank those directly involved and also send a note of thanks to their bosses and the relationship partners/client contacts for the law firms/in-house clients.
Second, self-promote the clinic by sending an internal thank-you note to the entire legal department (or appropriate division within your organization) and prepare a draft article that the communications department can use as a base for their articles/press releases.
Third, when someone asks where he or she can write to thank the organization for its involvement, accept this individual’s offer and instruct him/her to write the appropriate individual(s). Aim high (chief executive officer/general counsel for corporations, relationship partner/managing partner for law firms, executive director/chair of the board for nonprofits), as support from the top of an organization is key to creating a sustainable culture of a pro bono-focused organization.
These steps require more time than anyone anticipates, and they must be performed in a timely manner. One additional practical suggestion is to block out your calendar for the remainder of the day after the clinic, if it is a half-day clinic, or half of the following day, for a full-day clinic, in order to accomplish any follow-up and paperwork quickly and have the most impact.
Identify a project in which at least a handful of your organization’s attorneys, paralegals and staff will volunteer to participate. Although successful clinics will be repeated annually or sometimes more frequently, variety keeps volunteers committed and participating.
Examples of recent clinics in the Philadelphia area in which Exelon’s and PECO’s legal staff have participated include Wills for Heroes (wills, living wills and powers of attorney — financial and medical — for first responders); birth certificate clinic for the homeless (needed for identification, housing, benefits and school purposes); preparing living wills and medical powers of attorney for homeless HIV/AIDS patients; preparing living wills and medical powers of attorney for Latino senior citizens in Spanish and English; preparing Holocaust reparations applications and appeals to file with the German government; representing home owners facing foreclosure at conciliation conferences; assisting green card holders with citizenship applications; and counseling entrepreneurs and individuals considering becoming entrepreneurs on new business legal matters (formation, negotiating contracts and leases, intellectual property concerns, insurance, zoning, employee concerns, etc.).
Core projects tend to self-identify by participation numbers and participant feedback. This is important because the more clinics of the same type your group performs, the pre-training requirement is eliminated and even less time needs to be reserved to participate in the clinic. Use these clinics as the cornerstones to your pro bono program. Over time, the subject matter of your clinics will change, but the unifying characteristic of a large number of clients served in a short amount of time will remain constant and rewarding! A practical goal can be participation in a clinic each quarter, with one or more being a clinic organized/sponsored by your organization.
Push your colleagues and leadership — it will energize your program, increase participation from even unlikely sources and transform our communities. Once your corporation or law department becomes comfortable with providing services at clinics, you then can try to stretch its comfort zone. There is a world of need beyond that which clinics can address and handling individual pro bono cases is something that attorneys in your department can and should do. As a result of your clinic experiences, your corporation or law department will have a ready-made base of outside counsel and non-profit support at your disposal. Furthermore, the same teaming concepts and problem solving skills used while participating in successful clinics can be applied to provide successful and manageable representation on individual case matters.
Exelon/PECO’s successful clinics have included at least one outside counsel partner and one non-profit partner. From an in-house/outside counsel perspective, this model works well as business relationships are created, sustained and/or strengthened as a result of the time spent interacting at the clinic. Similarly, from the nonprofit’s perspective, funding relationships are created, sustained and/or strengthened when a company’s or firm’s employees are involved in volunteer work for the organization.
One additional way to accomplish this is to target the law firms and legal departments of the non-profit’s attorney board members. Finally, and perhaps the most effective way to expand and sustain pro bono participation, is to involve small legal departments, solo practitioners and lawyers at firms and companies currently without the pro bono infrastructure or institutional support to partner with larger departments and non-profits in a clinic.
In conclusion, the clinic model offers law firms and in-house legal departments a manageable pro bono event to organize and in which to participate. Search out opportunities with non-profit organizations in your area, particularly those focused on the provision of free legal services. Law firms — ask your clients. In-house counsel — ask your outside counsel as their pro bono leads (particularly in the greater Philadelphia area) are fully versed on pro bono opportunities and organizations. Law firms and in-house counsel — ask your peers who run the pro bono program for their company’s legal department/law firms.
Clinics’ impact to the clients and our communities is significant and worth promoting as a way that a legal department of any size can perform and partner with others to perform meaningful pro bono services.
I recently attended the ABA’s Women in Law Leadership Academy where Lynn Laverty Elsenhans, chairman and chief executive officer of Sunoco Inc., spoke on a different topic, but her words are applicable to pro bono: “Be results oriented, not efforts oriented.” The clinic model is a short-term effort that definitely is results oriented.
Amy M. Tarr is the assistant general counsel of Exelon Business Services Company, where she handles commercial contracts and general corporate matters and is the Pro Bono East lead. Prior to joining Exelon, she was a business and finance associate at Morgan Lewis &Bockius in Philadelphia. She received her JD from Loyola Law School and her B.A. in English from the University of Pennsylvania. She can be reached at 215.841.4694 or firstname.lastname@example.org