David Leitch Remarks – McGuire Woods Partners’ Retreat

David Leitch
Ford Motor Company Group Vice President and General Counsel David Leitch

Ford Motor Company** Group Vice President and General Counsel David Leitch recently delivered remarks at the McGuire Woods Partners’ Retreat. Leitch touched on the history of the company’s pro bono program and provided excellent examples of how pro bono services can greatly impact communities in need. See his remarks below.

Shortly after Henry Ford began the Ford Motor Company in 1903, he said, “A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business.” Ford felt that a good company not only creates good products for its customers, but serves the communities in which we live. You can hear echoes of this in a mantra that is often repeated at Ford today: Great Products. Strong Business. Better World.

Henry Ford’s personal motto of “Help the Other Fellow” started with his employees; he recognized that policies generous to those employees would result in happier workers and a better product. To mention just a few innovations Ford implemented – well before they were accepted by others:

  • In January 1914, just over 100 years ago, he announced the $5 workday, doubling the industry standard for a day’s wages and bringing his hardworking employees closer to affording the cars they built. Ford considered it a way of sharing the company’s profits with all those who had helped make those profits possible.
  • Very early in the company’s history, Ford introduced employment policies that created opportunities for the physically and mentally handicapped and even ex-convicts. In 1937, it was reported that Ford Motor had 11,632 workers in various stages of disability, earning full pay – and the article noted – these workers “give full value for their wages.”
  • Ford also supported a variety of educational facilities at the workplace, starting with the English Language School at the Highland Park plant in 1914, when he realized his largely immigrant workforce needed language skills and assistance.

Henry Ford’s vision of service was not just realized in the workplace, but rather extended to the broader community. On January 24, 1925, Ford placed an advertisement in the Saturday Evening Post, entitled “Opening the Highways to All Mankind.” It detailed Henry Ford’s original vision that we could democratize transportation to give us more time to spend on family, work, and the community.

Again, to cite a few examples of our company’s service to the community:

  • When it became clear that a national convention was needed to address the needs of those returning from the First World War, Henry Ford organize a cross-country caravan of 50 Model Ts to take disabled veterans to the 1922 DAV national convention in San Francisco.
  • In 1938, during the Great Depression, Ford set up Camp Legion, a tent colony and farm in Dearborn to give unemployed young men an opportunity to farm the land, where they could learn a trade. Camp Legion also served as a pipeline to the Henry Ford Trade School, where these men could learn skills to gain employment in the auto industry.
  • After World War II, Henry Ford – who, it should be noted, was a rather outspoken pacifist – again came to the aid of disabled veterans by proclaiming that vehicles would be equipped for their use without additional cost to the vet. As he said at the time, “The least we can do for these men is to be sure that they get an even break with those who come back without major disabilities, and we do not want any profit incentive to enter into this picture. No man who lost a limb in the armed services of our country during the war is going to have to pay anything extra to drive a Ford automobile.”

Today we continue that legacy of community service. Our Ford Volunteer Corps has more than 27,000 employees and retirees, who volunteer in 41 countries. Each year, those volunteers provide more than 112,000 hours of work on more than 1,100 community service projects. These include everything from volunteering to paint homeless shelters and orphanages, to serving meals for seniors, to environmental clean-up.

One memorable opportunity was our support of the Honor Flight for WWII veterans. Last June, the Ford Fund, we sponsored a visit of WWII veterans to the National WWII Memorial in Washington on the 69th anniversary of D-Day, one of three Ford-sponsored Honor Flights in 2013. Several Ford lawyers met these veterans on the tarmac and escorted them to the memorial, listened to their amazing stories, and made them feel appreciated by the country that owes them so much.

What does all of this mean for the lawyers of Ford Motor Company? While we of course participate in general community service efforts at Ford and on our own, our obligation to serve doesn’t end there. Just like all of you, the lawyers at Ford have an unusual obligation and an ethical duty – as lawyers – to use our legal skills in pro bono service.

I say unusual because some other professions don’t share the practice. Certainly many others choose to give back in numerous ways, but they often don’t have the same obligation imposed by their codes of ethics to use their particular professional skills to serve others.

I’m a member of the Virginia bar. Rule 6.1 says: “A lawyer should render at least two percent per year of the lawyer’s professional time to pro bono publico legal services.” I also practice in Michigan. Michigan Rule 6.1 requires: “A lawyer should render public interest legal service” and the bar has promulgated a standard under which “All active members of the State Bar of Michigan should participate in the direct delivery of pro bono legal services to the poor.” North Carolina Rule 6.1 specifies: “Every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay. A lawyer should aspire to render at least (50) hours of pro bono publico legal services per year,” and New York states in its Rule 6.1: “Lawyers are strongly encouraged to provide pro bono legal services to benefit poor persons. (a) Every lawyer should aspire to: (1) provide at least 50 hours of pro bono legal services each year to poor persons.”

At Ford, we take these obligations very seriously. In fact, 2014 marks the 30th anniversary of Ford’s formal pro bono program. Attorneys used to take on pro bono as individuals, but in 1984, Jack Martin, who would go on to become Ford’s General Counsel, turbocharged the program, organizing our efforts and formally authorizing lawyers to utilize company resources for pro bono work. Jack worked with the General Counsels of GM and Chrysler to form the Detroit Legal Services Clinic under the Detroit Metropolitan Bar Association Foundation, and then encouraged our outside counsel to join with us to provide pro bono services.

But, I’m sorry to say, our pro bono program fell into relative disuse in the early 2000s. As we as a company laid off tens of thousands of people mid-decade, and as the legal office shrunk by nearly half, people were frankly too concerned about the company’s survival – and their own employment – to spend as much time as they had in the past on anything but getting the job done.

Nevertheless, it was at that very same time that the needs of our community were the greatest. So even as the financial crisis – and Ford’s own existential crisis – was beginning to unfold, we decided the time was right to act. We reinvigorated our pro bono program and set up a departmental committee to expand opportunities and provide support. We decided that we would concentrate on servicing basic needs rather than any grandiose social programs or causes. And our attorneys and legal assistants stepped up to help.

They staffed food stamp clinics in local schools, provided legal support to local non-profits, worked on securing veterans benefits for those returning from overseas deployment, provided representation to immigrants seeking asylum, conducted “wills for heroes” events for local first responders like police and firefighters, sought expungement on behalf of those entitled to clear their records, and assisted the elderly and poor in completing tax returns and securing earned income tax credits. We are very proud that at Detroit’s worst time, we are providing genuine help, often with immediate benefits.

As the father of an Army officer, I’m especially proud of the work we do for veterans. One way we do this is through a clinic called Project Salute. One of our attorneys recently helped a veteran receive 100% disability benefits, significantly improving his life after a string of hardships. Among the challenges in the case was that the medical clinic burned down and destroyed all records of his service-connected injury, but our attorney persevered for his client, obtained a new medical opinion, and convinced the VA Board of Appeals that his injuries were service-connected.

I know that one of the winners of the 2013 McGuire Woods pro bono award likewise served one of our nation’s heroes, Sgt. Whitney Spurgeon. Sgt. Spurgeon’s job was to protect a Blackhawk crew fighting in Iraq. At the same time, however, Sgt. Spurgeon was fighting pro se for the safe future of his two children. His kids were taken from him to live in a crack house, in violation of a custody order. A McGuire Woods associate stepped in from Virginia and battled Sgt. Spurgeon’s cause all the way to the courts of Kentucky, winning the right to bring the children of a twice-wounded warrior, and permanently-disabled veteran, safely home. I am grateful to any firm, and any lawyer, that will help ease the suffering of a soldier risking his or her life for our country, so far from home. Thank you to McGuire Woods and Sgt. Spurgeon’s counsel, Michelle Christian.

I understand that the other matter you highlight today is the tragic case of a Florida boy who was left home alone at 12 to care for his two-year old brother, and allegedly caused injuries that swelled the toddler’s brain. When the brother died, the prosecutor pursued a life sentence against Cristian Fernandez, in adult court. Melissa Nelson is one of your special counsel, and herself a mother of three children under nine. I really doubt she woke up in the morning believing she had an insufficient amount to do. But Melissa was ill at ease with Cristian’s adult prosecution, and outraged at a case built on a twelve-year old’s lawyer-less confession and solitary confinement during pre-trial. Melissa led a coalition of lawyers to suppress the statement, apply new Supreme Court precedent designating life terms for juveniles as cruel and unusual, and steered Cristian into a juvenile facility, replete with treatment and education services.

These are shining examples of lawyering for the betterment of our communities and our country. I applaud you for supporting them. I am pleased that McGuire Woods, one of Ford’s core law firms, is focusing part of its partner retreat this year on Pro Bono and Community work. These values are important to Ford, in word and practice, and the fact they are shared values only strengthens our partnership.

At Ford, we’re now focused on expanding pro bono around the world, to places like Brazil, China, Mexico, and India – nations where the culture of pro bono is not as engrained, or where in some instances bar rules even prohibit providing legal services for free.

As you celebrate pro bono successes today and discuss the ways in which McGuire Woods can “Go Further,” I applaud your focus, and wish continued success. McGuire Woods can take pride in making a difference for those less fortunate. Even as you do that, I know you, like Ford, will not rest on your laurels but will continue to serve others.

**denotes a Signatory to the Corporate Pro Bono Challenge®