Corporate Pro Bono (CPBO), a global project of Pro Bono Institute (PBI) committed to enhancing in-house pro bono, presented a session at the 2023 Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) Annual Meeting in San Antonio, Texas this week: Chief Legal Officer’s Point of View: Doing Well and Doing Good. Eve Runyon, President and CEO of PBI, moderated an engaging discussion with Marcus Brown, Executive Vice President & General Counsel of Entergy Corporation, and Hossein Nowbar, Chief Legal Officer of Microsoft Corporation. Entergy and Microsoft both have robust, longstanding pro bono programs. They are signatories to the Corporate Pro Bono Challenge® initiative, committing to the aspirational goal of engaging at least 50 percent of their legal staff in pro bono. Both legal departments have a fulltime pro bono counsel to lead their pro bono programs, which is rare among in-house legal teams. And both legal departments have leaders who champion pro bono, and who align pro bono with corporate initiatives like social impact and DEI programs.
The panelists discussed the increasing importance of the legal department’s pro bono work to the company overall. For both, their department’s in-house pro bono program evolved from doing good for good’s sake, to being a critical component of the company’s social impact portfolio or the “S” of the company’s ESG (environmental, social, and governance) strategy.
For example, Brown shared that Entergy’s CEO has discussed pro bono in the quarterly earnings call, which shows that pro bono has become part of the standard metrics for corporate performance. Brown noted that the value proposition for doing pro bono has changed. It is no longer considered secondary work, but rather is part of what companies need to do well. He discussed the obligation of the company to not be indifferent to the fact that their customers are impacted by access to justice issues, and that the legal department can lend its voice, time, and resources to move the needle.
For Microsoft, Nowbar shared that pro bono accrues to investor trust and the company’s mission of enabling every person to achieve more by increasing societal impact, protecting fundamental rights, and advancing sustainability. Nowbar also discussed how legal departments can also further access to justice through financial support, sharing expertise in legal operations, and digital transformation.
Technology has the potential to enhance pro bono and legal services more generally. During the discussion, Nowbar shared an exciting demo of an AI tool that Microsoft’s legal department is developing to facilitate and accelerate pro bono work on immigration cases. This tool has the potential to change how we provide pro bono legal services and could help to address the enormous gap between the number of people who need legal aid, and the available civil legal aid resources and pro bono volunteers. Training models for additional areas of pro bono work beyond immigration could benefit legal services providers as well as individuals seeking legal help.
The panel also discussed how pro bono aligns with DEI and racial justice initiatives. At Entergy, Brown sees “a natural alliance” between pro bono and DEI. For example, the legal department’s pro bono election protection effort came out of the DEI council’s focus on protecting voters on Election Day. At Microsoft, Nowbar has encouraged tying the DEI and pro bono teams closer together because the collective impact of those programs can be greater than the sum of its parts. An example is how the pro bono team has partnered with other employee groups to overturn racially restrictive covenants.
The panelists also discussed the importance of metrics and reporting on important pro bono measures, both to show its value to the company and to recruit new volunteers. Brown encouraged attendees to tell the story of the pro bono work being done, whether individually or having others share those experiences. By highlighting your volunteer experience and the impact you made, or asking your client or your partnering legal services organization to do so, you can let your legal department know about your impact, celebrate the work, and encourage new volunteers to participate.
CLOs and GCs that support pro bono, like Nowbar and Brown, are an important key to a successful in-house pro bono program. The panelists advised attendees to ask their leadership to prioritize pro bono, and to explain how it will benefit the department. Those benefits include a sense of purpose, an advantage in talent recruitment, increased team collaboration, and fostering the building blocks of a strong culture and skill set. When leadership sees those benefits, they will want to engage, and once you celebrate your first pro bono achievements, it will be easier to continue to prioritize the work. Once leaders are on board, they can further prioritize pro bono by implementing policies that make it easier for volunteers to participate. For example, Microsoft requests that everyone in the legal department—attorneys, paralegals, and other business staff—commit to doing 30 hours of pro bono annually and has included that commitment in performance reviews, thus encouraging employees to do pro bono and also giving employees permission to take time out of their workday to participate.
Additionally, the panel discussed common perceived barriers to in-house pro bono and how they can be overcome. First, legal teams often are concerned that they lack time to participate in pro bono. However, there are many “bite-size,” limited scope pro bono projects with discrete time commitments that can be the perfect fit for busy in-house counsel and legal staff. Second, there is often a perceived mismatch between the skills of in-house counsel and the community’s needs for pro bono. This barrier can be overcome by working with legal services providers that offer training and mentorship for critical pro bono practice areas, ensuring that the pro bono volunteers are well-supported. Alternatively, volunteers can take on transactional pro bono matters that make use of existing skill sets. Third, in-house counsel often worry about malpractice insurance if their company does not have coverage for pro bono. However, this can easily be addressed by partnering with a legal services provider that extends its coverage to pro bono volunteers, or exploring the options for malpractice insurance for in-house pro bono.
Nowbar and Brown also shared their own pro bono journeys and what pro bono has meant to them personally. Brown referred to pro bono as “what I believe is an obligation and an important commitment for all lawyers.” Nowbar discussed the “great sense of duty” he has to do pro bono, noting that “it’s a few hours of our time for a lifetime impact for the people who receive the service.”
PBI is grateful to Marcus Brown and Hossein Nowbar for their leadership as in-house pro bono champions. We invite legal departments and ACC chapters that wish to start doing pro bono or further develop their pro bono efforts to contact CPBO at email@example.com for technical assistance and resources.