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Top GCs Go for Pro Bono

When Richard Rufolo arrived for his pro bono guardianship case, he initially wasn’t quite sure which side of the courtroom to stand on.

But Rufolo, the vice president for legal at United Parcel Service Inc., said learning such things is among the many benefits in-house lawyers receive from performing pro bono work.

“We tend to take for granted the fact that we know what we’re doing, but as in-house lawyers, we don’t do a lot of litigation,” he said. “This makes us better lawyers.”

Rufolo shared his anecdote Friday during a panel discussion titled “The Role of Corporate Counsel in Expanding Access to Justice” sponsored by Legal Services Corp. as part of its board of directors’ quarterly meeting. The meeting was held at Georgia State University College of Law.

In addition to Rufolo, the panel featured top lawyers at Atlanta’s largest companies, all of which have robust pro bono practices and community service commitments: Peter Carter, executive vice president and chief legal officer at Delta Air Lines Inc.; C. Ben Garren, Jr., general counsel for North America at The Coca-Cola Co.; and Teresa Wynn Roseborough, executive vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary at The Home Depot Inc., who moderated the hourlong discussion.

Indeed, it is the encouragement from senior management that allows the legal departments to, as Roseborough put it, balance “the tension of day jobs and the need to do compelling work,” the panelists agreed.

“When you have the support from above, it really makes it easy for people who are in the trenches, who have big jobs and who are stressed trying to, say, get the fuel subsidies contract done, to say, ‘I’ve got to go down and meet my client,'” Carter said.

Added Garren: “If you’re going to talk about being good community citizens, then that needs to be one of your priorities, and you must give people the space to be able to do that.

“We try to look at our pro bono work as part of our objectives. This isn’t just altruistic. It’s fundamental to our democracy and to the large numbers of people who don’t have access to justice.”

In choosing where to spend their pro bono time and efforts, the in-house lawyers agreed that they look for projects that align with company values. For example, Delta, aware that Atlanta is a hot spot for human trafficking, has undertaken several efforts to combat the problem. Thus, when Carter was looking for a pro bono organization to partner with, the Georgia Asylum and Immigration Network, which provides pro bono legal services to immigrant victims of human trafficking, domestic violence, sexual assault and other crimes, was an obvious choice.

An education about litigation and other rarely practiced areas of the law for in-house attorneys is not the only thing they gain from these pro bono partnerships, the panelists said. Pro bono groups, for example, are excellent at the relational practice of law over the transactional side, which is a trait corporate legal departments should strive for, Carter said.

In addition, the passion these lawyers bring to their work is “inspiring” and demonstrates how “powerful and engaging you can be when you have passion for what you do,” Garren said.