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Law.com’s In-House Counsel Group Provides Path for GCs to Do Pro Bono Work

Fulton County Daily Report
Katheryn Hayes Tucker
August 27, 2007

For plenty of good reasons, in-house lawyers generally do not do nearly as much pro bono work as those in law firms, according to Rachel Epps Spears, executive director of the Pro Bono Partnership of Atlanta.

A big part of the why is groups that offer pro bono services — such as the Atlanta Legal Aid Society and Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation — help low income individuals find attorneys. In-house lawyers are used to representing corporations. Private practice lawyers are often experienced in litigation, which often is what an individual needs. Corporate lawyers are more likely to handle transactions, contracts, intellectual property issues. The services needed by many consumers don’t match their expertise.

“Some in-house lawyers do it, but it’s outside their skill set,” said Spears. “These are transactional attorneys, some of whom have never set foot in a courtroom. It’s way outside their comfort zone.”

And many in-house lawyers don’t do pro bono work at all, she said. Unlike big firms with plenty of lawyers, their staffs tend to be leaner, sometimes just the general counsel. Big law firms may have a pro bono coordinator who puts lawyers in touch with those who need legal help. Many law firms offer billable hours credit for pro bono work. Some even require it. No such incentives exist in house.

In-house lawyers often feel they can’t spare the time to make the necessary arrangements for pro bono work. Or they fear they can’t do it well. “Some of them are afraid they’d commit malpractice,” Spears said.

That is why a group of major corporations formed the Pro Bono Partnership in New York to identify and refer pro bono matters to transactional — and mostly in-house — lawyers. The nonprofit launched its first regional affiliate in Atlanta in the spring of 2005 under the leadership of a group of local corporations and law firms. In the past two years, the Pro Bono Partnership of Atlanta has been able to recruit more than 300 volunteers — many of them in-house lawyers.

“Our mission is to make it easy and enjoyable for in-house lawyers to do pro bono work,” said Spears. “And we provide malpractice insurance.”

The partnership is different because it works for nonprofit corporations, not individuals, with needs similar to the companies where the in-house lawyers work. Low-income individuals may still be served, but indirectly through the nonprofit corporations. The corporate lawyers are still doing the type of work they are best at doing — contracts, trademarks, financial transactions and the like.

The visible force behind the partnership’s success is the soft-spoken Spears, who manages the organization, conducts workshops, recruits clients and volunteers and acts as the general counsel, parceling out matters one by one to volunteers with limited time. Spears has seven years experience in the public finance department at King & Spalding, plus degrees from the University of Virginia Law School and Davidson College, and a track record that includes a body of pro bono work of her own and stints with two congressmen. Despite her credentials, Spears said she “just fell into” everything she had done. Until now.

“This was the one thing I knew was the perfect thing for me,” said Spears during a conversation at the partnership’s office on the 23rd floor of the 999 Peachtree building, where Sutherland Asbill & Brennan has donated space. As soon as she heard the partnership was being formed and needed an executive director, Spears said, “I went after it.”

She has learned from experience what does and does not match her own skills. She started out with King & Spalding as a litigator. “I was miserable because it didn’t fit my personality. I don’t like being confrontational.”

But Spears feels uniquely suited to matching people with needs and opportunities. “There are more important things than money,” she said. “When I read what first-year associates are getting paid, I don’t wish I was back.”

A colleague said Spears took a risk and found her calling. “She finds opportunities and connects individuals. She’s a deal maker,” said Jennifer H. Keaton of Elarbee Thompson Sapp & Wilson. “Her role is unique and requires the business acumen to keep the nonprofit running. She is multidimensional and does it all.”

The group has amassed more than 200 clients, but many have several different needs. The current list of matters being handled is divided into banking, contracts, construction, corporate and tax, employment, intellectual property, real estate and leases. Some nonprofit organizations appear in more than one category.

Take, for example, H.O.P.E. Through Divine Intervention Inc. The group provides housing, mental health and other supportive services to the homeless and underserved in metro Atlanta in order to help them build self-sustaining lifestyles. Last month, the group needed legal advice regarding a contract with a landlord, an employee handbook and personnel policies, a series of contracts for a building project and a mortgage.

Another client is Cowgirl City Ranch. The group provides therapeutic riding and introduces low-income children to horsemanship and organic produce. The ranch needed legal assistance for participant and volunteer liability waivers and help in obtaining a trademark for its corporate name.

Many of the volunteers handling such cases are from law firms. And some major law firms in Atlanta helped organize the group: Kilpatrick Stockton, King & Spalding and Sutherland Asbill & Brennan. The focus, however, is on in-house lawyers. And the board is comprised of executives from corporations, including: Coca-Cola Co., GE Energy, AGL Resources, AT&T Southeast (formerly BellSouth), Turner Broadcasting System Inc., Southern Co. and the Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta. The board also has a member from Emory University — Faith Knight, associate general counsel.

Spears said the partnership’s clients tend to be amazed by the caliber of free services offered. “They are so appreciative,” she said. “They can’t believe they can get access to these people. These are really, really good lawyers — the best in town.”

And the lawyers generally — even those new to pro bono work — find the experience satisfying. “When I get a volunteer who has never done pro bono work in their life, I think that’s a huge success,” said Spears.

She said she still has “some sleepless nights” in her pro bono role and in some ways feels even more pressure than in private practice.

“The buck stops with me. It can be overwhelming,” she said. “But it’s also rewarding.”