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Corporate Spotlight: Lego GC Committed to Children

The Connecticut Law Tribune
Christian Nolan
March 20, 2008

It’s not every day you come across a corporate lawyer who devotes two business days a week entirely to pro bono work — all pertaining to the representation of children or indigent parents — for three different legal aid organizations.

What’s even more remarkable is, in between that and serving as general counsel of LEGO Systems Inc. in Enfield, Conn., for the past 15 years, Peter Arakas used his spare time to create the state’s first Truancy Intervention Project. The program is designed for lawyers to not only represent children in truancy cases but also to serve as their mentors and stress the importance of education.

Arakas’ effort in creating the Truancy Intervention Project in New Britain, Conn., is the main reason he received The Connecticut Law Tribune’s annual Pro Bono Award in 2007.

Arakas’ roots in pro bono work stem from his eight-year tenure as a social worker before attending law school. “When I went to law school, I thought I’d get into family law,” the University of Connecticut School of Law graduate recalled. But he said courses he never expected to enjoy, such as tax law, “opened up a new vista.”

Arakas, 58, took that vista to Aetna Inc. after law school but did not abandon his family law interests. While at Aetna, he took full advantage of a company policy that enabled him to spend 10 percent of his time on pro bono work. He began accepting child abuse and neglect cases in Hartford, Conn.’s juvenile court. Arakas found the work rewarding.

Making a Difference
His current employer, LEGO Systems Inc., is the U.S. affiliate of the Danish LEGO group and distributes LEGO brand toys throughout the country.

Because the LEGO job required him to do a lot of traveling, Arakas had to quit taking on juvenile court cases in Hartford. However, three years ago, Arakas was able to restructure his work schedule, travel less frequently and free up two business days per week—Tuesdays and Fridays—to spend on pro bono work.

These days, Arakas takes on two or three cases at a time from Statewide Legal Services of Connecticut, Inc., mostly representing parents in child welfare cases. He also handles child abuse and neglect cases for the Lawyers for Children America program. Launched 15 years ago, the program receives administrative support and office space from Aetna.

The third outlet for Arakas’ altruism is the Children’s Law Center of Connecticut, Inc. in Hartford. There he represents children as guardian ad litem in custody disputes or less frequently serves as a mediator for custody or visitation arrangements.

Volunteering time for all three organizations might be a full-time job for another ambitious pro bono counsel. But for Arakas, he’s just getting warmed up. The focal point of his attention these days is the Truancy Intervention Project he began at New Britain’s Roosevelt Middle School.

The program, in its second year of existence in New Britain, originated in Atlanta. The idea of bringing the effort to Connecticut was presented to Arakas in his capacity as chairman of the James W. Cooper Fellows of the Connecticut Bar Foundation.

Arakas, who resides in Farmington, said he was familiar with the New Britain school system, which is where his wife, Karen Kellerman, is a social worker. He presented the idea to the school district and local educators wasted no time getting on board.

Last year, the project focused its attention on eight children with truancy problems. One boy’s mother had cancer and his grandmother had had a stroke. In taking care of them, the student’s grades and attendance in school suffered, Arakas said. Another child, he added, feared the bullying problems he faced at school; other students’ parents were not supportive in making sure their children attended class.

“The feedback from the school system has been that this is worthwhile in continuing,” said Arakas, who hopes to expand the program to two other middle schools in New Britain and take on an average of 45 cases per year.

Arakas stressed the importance of making a commitment to the children that extends beyond only seeing them at court hearings. “I want to let the kid know I’m a reliable person he can count on,” said Arakas. To be effective, the lawyer must take an interest in the child, serve as a mentor and emphasize the importance of education because so many of the youths come from homes where education has not been valued, he said.

Opportunities for All
Patricia Kaplan, executive director at New Haven Legal Assistance Association, Inc., said Arakas is unusual “in that he has identified a project that could be done by in-house counsel and spent so much time trying to make it work. It’s been a huge effort. It exemplifies the best of what pro bono work can be,” she said.

Connecticut Bar Foundation President William H. Narwold described Arakas as a “tireless advocate” of children. “He does it day in and day out,” said Narwold, who practices at the Hartford office of Motley Rice LLC. “I think it’s even more remarkable he does this out of a corporate setting.”

Robert M. Langer, a Charter Fellow of the James W. Cooper Fellows Program, presented the 2007 Pro Bono Award to Arakas. “He is really, in my view, one of the smartest lawyers I’ve ever dealt with in my entire career,” said Langer, a partner in the Hartford office of Wiggin and Dana LLP. “He’s really dedicated himself in a meaningful way to the profession. He deserves the credit he’s receiving.”

Arakas said he hopes efforts like the Truancy Intervention Project will encourage non-litigators to take on more pro bono assignments. Corporate lawyers often believe the only significant pro bono opportunities involve going to court, which they have little experience doing, he said. To date, however, Truancy Intervention Project lawyers have only had one case that required a court hearing and that proceeding was very non-adversarial, according to Arakas.