As part of the Challenge Signatory Showcase, Corporate Pro Bono is excited to highlight The Williams Companies**, and their housing justice pro bono project. We chatted with Williams’ Senior Vice President and General Counsel, Lane Wilson, about the project and the impact that it has on tenants who are unable to afford legal representation when faced with eviction. Wilson also discussed with us the importance of having a general counsel who is involved in the department’s pro bono program.
LW: One of the many ways Williams’ employees implement our Responsible Stewards Core Value is to support the communities where we work and live. We have lawyers, paralegals, and staff across the country, and they all provide some form of pro bono service because our core values are important to everyone at Williams. In Tulsa, the we collaborate with the Tulsa County Bar Association’s Forcible Entry and Detainer (FED) Pro-Bono Program, which involves the Court Assistance Project (CAP). We also provide services to Legal Aid of Oklahoma.
The impact of evictions for tenants can be long-lasting and devasting for families and communities.
Under CAP, our attorneys represent tenants who face evictions, and in advocating for a tenant, they may negotiate an agreement to vacate the subject property on a time fram that works for the tenant, address rent payments, or keep the tenant in the property. Williams attorneys and paralegals assist Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma in providing basic life planning documents such as Transfer on Death deeds and living wills to those who cannot afford an attorney. Finally, our attorneys assist with a University of Tulsa legal clinic that provides basic transactional legal services to underrepresented areas of Tulsa. We have 36 attorneys, 19 of them, laong with 7 paralegals, are in our Tulsa office and virtually all participate in one or more of these programs.
Why this is a rewarding project for the volunteers and clients?
LW: Access to the legal system is important for everyone, and the gratification that comes from helping a pro bono client is incredibly rewarding. Here are a few quotes from our team members:
Kim Roy, Senior Counsel – “Helping those in need has always fed my soul, but as lawyers we have a unique skill to contribute to society. Lawyers are trained to be advocates and advisors for society. Our skill and services should not be accessible to only those that can afford us. Work that may be simple to us (end of life documents, eviction proceedings, etc.) are scary and overwhelming challenges for most people. Each and every pro bono client I have had the pleasure of assisting has been grateful and appreciative of my guidance as I helped them navigate a challenging part of their lives.”
Ramon Watkins, Senior Counsel – “I believe that everyone who needs legal assistance should receive it regardless of their financial ability. Knowing that I’ve educated someone about the law and provided legal services that otherwise would not have been available to that person is gratifying, rewarding, and humbling.”Christian Chicas, Paralegal Senior – “Williams allows us to make a positive impact in our community by allowing us to participate in pro bono work with LASO. I believe it is important to take the time to give back to your local community even if it is by a small act of writing up a Will. We are not only helping individuals who need our assistance but helping their family and friends too.”
Cheryl Mahon, Paralegal Senior – “I love helping people and working with the LASO clients is very rewarding as they are very appreciative of everything we do, and it helps make their lives easier for themselves and their families. It is nice to see how appreciative they are for the little things we do.”
Annotation of feedback from a LASO client that Tami Anderson Velarde, Senior Counsel, assisted: “I just can’t thank you enough for the expertise that made my end of life preparation easy for me. So thorough.”
What impact has this project had?
LW: As a former judge, and having represented clients in the CAP Program, I can say from my own experience that the program provides access to justice and hope to tenants. Being faced with an eviction or being evicted could lead to the possible loss of possessions, jobs, change in schools for the children, etc., which impacts families mentally, emotionally, and financially. Providing life planning documents allows older low-income individuals to have the peace of mind that their wishes regarding end-of-life care and the disposition of their assets will be carried out. Also, the work with The University of Tulsa clinic allows under-represented groups to obtain the legal services necessary to start a business or expand an existing business in a way that increases the likelihood of success.
What is the most challenging part of this pro bono work and how do you overcome it?
LW: One challenging part of our pro bono work is that many attorneys are not comfortable practicing in areas that are outside their specific areas of expertise. However, the services we provide are basic ones that do not require a steep learning curve and provide opportunities for professional development.
What advice would you give other departments that want to do similar pro bono work?
LW: Attorneys and companies hold a privileged position in society and should take a leadership role in our communities, not to mention the ethical obligation we have as lawyers to serve our communities. Pro bono work is the right thing to do. In addition, giving back to the community in the form of pro bono work provides opportunities for teamwork within a department, collaboration efforts outside the company, and a diversity of experiences, which support professional and emotional success. These efforts can also positively impact the bottom line. I encourage other departments to take advantage of pro bono opportunities and to use them to build thriving teams that benefit the company and its employees while making a difference in communities.
Why is it important to have general counsels actively involved in their department’s pro bono program?
LW: The General Counsel sets the tone and must lead by example. A grassroots effort like a pro bono program will not work without buy-in from all leaders in the department, including the GC. Everyone must be involved, and they must know and feel that they are doing this meaningful work as a team.
How do you think other departments can best encourage their general counsels to be engaged in pro bono?
LW: Have their GCs call me! If they won’t do that, get the program started and invite the GC to participate; hopefully she or he will see the benefits, get involved, and make it a full team effort that benefits everyone involved.
Check out more of our Challenge Signatories great work on the PBI Signatory Showcase.
**denotes a Corporate Pro Bono Challenge® signatory