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Marriage of Conviction

Law firms and clients lean on each other for innovative pro bono projects.
Corporate Counsel
Jill Nawrocki
August 1, 2007

It wasn’t a typical day in the life of an in-house counsel. Last August, Paulette Solinski passed through the metal doors of Holman Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Atmore, Alabama. Then the associate general counsel of Aon Corporation’s brokerage regulation group sat at what looked like an old metal lunch table, and stared into the eyes of her new client, Charlie Washington. He was convicted of killing an elderly couple in 2004, and has been waiting on death row for three years. Solinski was accompanied by her pro bono co-counsel, Eric Mattson, a partner at Sidley Austin.

Alabama law doesn’t guarantee convicted criminals representation on appeal. Prisoners without deep pockets or volunteer lawyers have few places to turn. Like a number of leading law firms, Sidley Austin offers death row inmates pro bono legal help, but the Chicago-based firm does something different. In May 2006, 13 months after Sidley began its own pro bono capital punishment program, the firm extended an offer to Aon, a longtime client, to partner on 18 death row cases. “Corporate attorneys have a different perspective … and we can get used to doing things [here in the Sidley manner,” says Sidley associate Alexa Warner.

The program is controversial, say Aon attorneys; just five of the insurer’s 88 in-house lawyers expressed inter­est in the program. Only two of them, Solinski and Kathleen Kumer, senior counsel of brokerage regulations, actually agreed to take on cases.

Solinski, whose client claims he is innocent, is against the death penalty. Kumer, whose cocounsel is Warner, simply believes it’s the responsibility of all lawyers to represent the poor. These two in-house attorneys have made what is one of the largest personal commitments to date for in-house pro bono, according to experts in the field. Together they’ve logged a total of 200 hours of work in the past year alone — mostly during nights and weekends — defending their clients. Anti with capital punishment cases lasting upward of a decade, the fight is hardly over. “I have glimmers of being overwhelmed” says Kumer, who is representing Darryl Turner, a man in his early thirties who was convicted of murder in 1999. “But we are able to rely on Sidley.”

Historically, law firms have had the big budgets, large staffs, and expansive resources that enabled them to success­fully handle the demands of volunteer legal services. Clients were not included in these efforts. But Esther Lardent, pres­ident of the Washington, D.C.-based Pro Bono Institute says that’s changing.

In recent years, a few dozen Am Law 200 firms have partnered with their Fortune 500 clients to do pro bono: Projects range from hosting monthly immigration clinics to handling politi­cal asylum cases, to providing legal aid to small businesses.

What’s in it for the firms and their clients? Both groups get the satisfaction of helping the poor and underprivileged. But firms also use these partner­ships to cement relationships with in‑house counsel. Just like an afternoon on the golf course, a day spent with a client working at a legal aid clinic is a low-key opportunity for marketing. In-house lawyers, meanwhile, get to deploy their legal skills in novel ways. Plus, partnering with firms gives them a chance to volunteer while limit­ing their liability (firm lawyers with expertise in the particular area typi­cally review their work).

So far, there’s no set pattern to these liaisons. Nor are they problem-free. Lar­dent says that sometimes they’re a little like a middle-school dance: No one knows who should take the lead. In the meantime, firms and their clients are creating a range of different models.

While law firms have done pro bono work for decades, in-house legal depart­ments, as a whole, are new to this type of public service. But as major compa­nies like McDonald’s Corporation and Exolon Corporation have publicly taken on more pro bono work, nonprofits and various bar associations, including the Association of Corporate Counse, have pushed other law departments to join them. These efforts culminated last November in the Corporate Pro Bono Challenge, an initiative launched by Lardent and the institute that calls for a 50 percent participation rate in vol­unteer legal services among in-house law departments. Fifty-seven blue-chip companies, among them General Elec­tric Company and Bank of America Corporation, have signed on.

Aside from helping those in need, providing free legal aid also helps a company burnish its reputation. Consumers and shareholders have been pressing corporations to do more public service, and legal pro bono is seen by many businesses as a low-cost way to portray themselves in a positive light. “Companies are getting to be much savvier about corporate social respon­sibility, and legal departments are just as able to help out,” says Miriam Ruhl, pro bono counsel for Weil, Gotshal & Manges. But many legal departments aren’t equipped to go it alone, which is one reason they’re forming partnerships with outside counsel.

Lardent and several law firm pro bono coordinators point to Abbott Laboratories, a pharmaceutical com­pany located about 30 miles outside Chicago, and Baker & McKenzie as early pioneers in this area. In 2001, well before the current in-house legal aid boom, Abbot attorneys attempted to develop a pro bono program. But they quickly realized that the infra­structure wasn’t there. The department was lean and budgets were tight, and while many Abbott lawyers had done pro bono at firms, few had continued that tradition in-house.

But then Baker & McKenzie’s Chi­cago office offered to partner up. “At the time I was on a committee that was looking at opportunities to work with in-house counsel on pro bono matters.” explains Betsy Morgan, a Baker partner. Testing the waters with a company that her firm had a long history with seemed like a natural move. So Baker offered up several of its own lawyers and space in its downtown Chicago office to host legal clinics for Abbott attorneys who wanted to assist foreign citizens try­ing to secure visas. Company lawyers interviewed clients and helped com­plete legal forms and paperwork, while Baker attorneys oversaw the process. It worked, says Beth Vrioni, senior patent counsel and co-chair of Abbott’s pro bono committee, because attorney roles were well-defined. “We’re the legal skills and the manpower. Baker brings the more specific expertise,” Vrioni says.

What began as a single immigra­tion clinic downtown one Saturday afternoon has grown to an impres­sive six clinics a year with help from Baker. And pro bono has now become a department-wide initiative at Abbott with annual requirements, such as a mandated ten hours of pro bono work for each in-house attorney. “Today we send out e-mails listing opportunities, and within an hour they’re gone,” says Kenneth Wittenberg, senior counsel of global product protection and cochair of Abbott’s pro bono committee. “It’s like a Police concert. If only I could make money from this.”

Microsoft Corporation took a more direct approach. In 2003 it actively pursued a partnership with some of its longtime firms on political asylum and immigration cases. “The need was greater than we could answer on our own,” says associate general coun­sel Lydia Tamez. Microsoft lawyers teamed up with the Seattle-based Vol­unteer Advocates for Immigrant Jus­tice and attorneys from a half-dozen of the company’s outside firms like Heller Ehrman, Davis Wright Tremaine, and Dorsey & Whitney. Microsoft lawyers rely heavily on Volunteer Advocates to serve as a pipeline to clients. Out­side lawyers provide resources like legal secretaries, research tools, and law libraries.

Four years after the partnerships began, Microsoft lawyers point to their latest success story. In June two Microsoft corporate counsel and a paralegal won a political asylum case for a 27- year-old Eritrean refugee who had been imprisoned and tortured for the acts of his father—a local elected official who questioned the government. Perkins Cole, a firm that Microsoft began part­nering with on pro bono early on, didn’t provide any lawyers for the nine-month case. Instead, it gave the in-house team access to resources like its mock trial room to prepare for their day in court. Tamez says that victories like these ben­efit more than just the in-house lawyers’ clients. “It brings back the passion [for the law],” she says.

New York–based Citigroup Inc. has taken its pro bono initiative a step fur­ther, pairing up with a dozen of its out­side counsel on an equal number of pro bono programs over the last two years. The company’s first partnership, which began in 2005 with Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, was a small business relief effort in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The program was launched after Kevin Curnin, a Stroock partner, and David Goldberg, a Citi associate GC, attended a New York City bar asso­ciation meeting on Katrina relief and decided to team up.

Buoyed by that project’s success, Citi put out the word to its top law firms that it was looking to do other joint volunteer efforts. Greenberg Traurig, for example, invited Citi law­yers to participate in its family court program; corporate counsel help rep­resent clients, and Greenberg provides the administrative support.

Citi also initiated pro bono programs. In spring 2006 the hank approached the Lawyers Alliance for New York, which acts as an intermediary between non­profits and attorneys, looking for places to provide legal aid. Lawyers Alliance connected the company to Weil, Got­shal, one of Citi’s outside firms, which was also looking to do more pro bono. Weil had done a lot of work with the Council of Senior Centers and Services of New York City, an advocacy organization for senior service agencies. The groups decided to leverage Weil’s exper­tise. Since then, Citi, in conjunction with the firm and Lawyers Alliance, has hosted two legal clinics to assist senior center directors in the greater New York area on topics in employment law, vendor contracts, and corporate gover­nance. Pairs of Citi and Weil lawyers conduct training sessions and breakout clinics, and take on clients that require follow-up work.

Partnering with law firms is cost-effi­cient, says Goldberg. Outside counsel can provide the resources and infra­structure and limit the in-house counsel’s costs. He adds, “The fundamental difference between in-house lawyers and law firm lawyers is that we’re a cost to the company as opposed to a rev­enue-generating member.”

If relationships like these are so ben­eficial, why aren’t more corporations and firms launching similar initiatives? For a number of reasons, says Steven Schul­man, pro bono counsel for Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. While he says the partnerships can work well, he remains “skittish” about endorsing them. (Still, Akin has teamed up with several of its corporate clients.) From staffing to relationship management, he says, the collaborations often require more main­tenance than either party anticipates. One of the biggest struggles, he adds, is learning to manage expectations as firms and corporations navigate a new relationship—one where pm bono cli­ents are the number one priority and attorneys work as peers instead of ven­dor and customers.

During their day jobs at Aon, Kumer and Solinski had very little direct contact with Sidley attorneys. But that changed when the pair signed on to represent the two death row inmates; they had to follow Sidley’s lead because they were new to capital representation. “I don’t bring the same expertise as someone at Sidley,” says Solinski. “I can contribute, but what I know is based on law school rather than practical experience.”

There are other potential complications. Staffing issues in particular often crop up, says Akin Gump’s Schul­man—regarding not just the number of available people, but the seniority of attorneys. If a corporation sends its general counsel to work on a case, for example, the law firm must do better than pressing a handful of summer associates into service, he says.

And finally, because these relation­ships are still relatively new, third-party social services—which both inside and outside counsel agree are vital to these arrangements—can be somewhat wary of partnering up. They think that “the firm does all the work and the com­pany doesn’t provide any lawyers,” says Citigroup’s Goldberg. But he adds, “From our perspective…that’s not [an arrangement] we’d be happy with.”

Still, companies and firms are find­ing ways to make these partnerships work. Last month, Solinski and her Sidley team filed a motion requesting additional discovery for their client. They are also awaiting a ruling on their final state appeal in Alabama, in which they argued ineffective assistance of trial counsel. “Our job here is about putting a personal face on a corpora­tion. [My pro bono work] is about put­ting a personal face on my client,” says Solinski. “In Alabama, if you can’t find someone to represent you [in a crimi­nal appeal] and you can’t afford an attorney, you aren’t represented. We’re changing that.”