High Integrity: The Pro Bono Partnership And GE

Tuesday, July 1, 2008 - 01:00

By actively engaging and supporting volunteers from corporate legal departments, the Pro Bono Partnership is the leading provider of free business legal services, educational workshops and other legal resources to nonprofit community-based organizations located in Fairfield County and greater Hartford, Connecticut; the lower New York Hudson Valley, including Westchester, Orange, Putnam and Rockland Counties; and New Jersey.

Editor: Why was the Pro Bono Partnership founded and what was your role in its inception?

Hobish: In 1996 a group of lawyers from the corporate bar of Westchester and Fairfield Counties (WESFACCA) began exploring the creation of a means for in-house lawyers to give back to their communities by providing pro bono services to the thousands of not-for-profit organizations located in Westchester and Fairfield counties. That group was led by then GE Corporate Counsel Bob Healing, who, with the strong support of then GE General Counsel Ben Heineman, assembled a leadership committee to spearhead the creation of such an organization.

At that time, I was Deputy Director of Lawyers Alliance for New York, and was confident that a program designed to get volunteer lawyers to use their existing skill sets to provide non-litigation legal services to nonprofit organizations could work well for in-house counsel, as no training would be required and the projects could be discrete and manageable. When Bob approached me, the timing could not have been better, as Lawyers Alliance, only months before, had wisely decided not to expand its programs to the suburbs, since issues it faced in New York City were both numerous and challenging. The leadership committee possessed the incredible commitment and drive needed to give the Pro Bono Partnership the solid infrastructure crucial to the success of any organization. After more than a year of planning, the leadership committee embarked on an executive search and hired me as Executive Director in late 1997.

Editor: I understand you have several offices today. How did they start?

Hobish: In 1997, our office in Westchester opened its doors, staffed only by Jessica Markowitz, who is today our Director of Finance and Administration, and me. Approximately one year later Maurice Segall joined; currently he serves as Deputy Director overseeing the New York and Connecticut programs. In 2000, a group of corporate attorneys from some of New Jersey's leading companies sought us out to establish an office there. That group included John Liftin, then General Counsel of Prudential; John Sander, Associate General Counsel of Schering Plough; and Colleen Szuch, Honeywell's Chief Intellectual Property Counsel, Specialty Materials.

Today, the Partnership operates throughout the tri-state communities surrounding New York City. Our New Jersey office is staffed by two lawyers and an administrative assistant. Our office in Westchester covers New York's Hudson Valley and Fairfield County, Connecticut, and has a staff of seven, with three lawyers including myself. And, several years ago we helped establish a similar organization in Hartford that has since joined us, becoming part of the Pro Bono Partnership family.

In 2002, with leadership from Happy Perkins (General Counsel of GE Energy), and the efforts of Partnership Board member Ivan Fong (then GE's Chief Intellectual Property Officer) we worked with general counsel and direct reports from some of Atlanta's leading companies (including GE, Coke, Delta and Cox) and started the Pro Bono Partnership of Atlanta, an independent 501(c)(3) organization that is thriving.

I should add here that one of the wonderful things about this organization is that once you get hooked, you don't want to leave. As a result, I've had the privilege of working with many members of the Partnership's Board for several years, including current Chairman John Liftin, Board President, John Sander, and Bill Ellis and Colleen Szuch, who remain two of our most active board members. That so many board members have been with us for years speaks well for the Pro Bono Partnership's professionalism and the dedication of our board members.

Editor: Can you tell us more about what GE has done for the Partnership?

Hobish: I strongly believe that without GE, this organization never would have been created, and without its continued support, it would not exist today. Bob was an inspirational moving force, and GE as a company - especially its legal department, under Brackett's and Ben's leadership - has endorsed our work and put itself on the line for us.

To this day, GE is our largest corporate funder, and about 100 GE attorneys have volunteered with us over the years on approximately 160 matters, handling not only small cases, but also matters that require long term commitment. For instance, when the Tarrytown YMCA, was renovating 50 single residency occupancy units, it was a huge job, with complicated financing vehicles, and many borrowers, each with their own contractual requirements. GE's Jane Alpert, who has extensive experience in tax-credit financing, volunteered to represent the YMCA and enlisted one of GE's law firms (Paul Hastings) to join in. Len Andrews, a retired IBM attorney, who was then president of the YMCA, estimates that between GE and Paul Hastings, the YMCA received upwards of $250,000 worth of legal services. That a lawyer in a corporate legal department, where the value on the shareholder dollar is of paramount importance, would work so hard for us is an extraordinary testament to GE's credo. I am continually impressed with GE's endorsement of pro bono work, which enhances the company's stature in the community, allows its lawyers to be professionally enriched, and most important, builds stronger communities.

Editor: How does the Partnership go about providing opportunities for corporate counsel to use their corporate law and transactional skills?

Hobish: We have to work with both sides of the partnership arrangement: on one side, our clients - the nonprofits - and on the other, our partners - corporate and law firm counsel. For the clients, we work closely with nonprofit leaders and familiarize ourselves with the issues affecting their communities. Our goal is to strengthen the infrastructure of nonprofits by providing free legal services of the highest quality enabling them to make wiser business and legal decisions, By providing the legal services that they otherwise couldn't afford, we help our clients solve their legal issues and avoid a crisis mode, thereby allowing them to work more efficiently and preserve their limited resources. The Partnership also runs workshops for nonprofit executives, conducted by our own attorneys and our volunteers, including many from GE. These workshops train nonprofit leaders on relevant business and legal needs to arm them with the ability to ask the right questions, make better decisions and enlist our services when needed.

In conducting outreach to volunteer attorneys, we generally first seek the endorsement of a company's general counsel. In the case of GE, our longstanding relationship with its leadership made this easy. We then introduce ourselves to the practice groups with presentations about the Partnership. After a presentation, the general counsel or practice group's leader and other interested attorneys will sign up, noting their areas of expertise. From there we call volunteers directly or send them our list of volunteer opportunities. We always advise them that a Partnership staff attorney is also assigned to every matter to provide whatever backup and support is needed.

Editor: How do organizations find out about you?

Hobish: In the beginning we looked to umbrella groups such as United Ways, community foundations, trade associations of nonprofits and local political leaders to leverage their connections. We continue to work closely with such groups, but also now benefit from an excellent reputation and the word-of-mouth referrals it generates.

Editor: How has your outreach to corporate law departments developed since the Partnership's founding?

Hobish: As we've become better known as a leader in the corporate pro bono culture, it has become easy to establish relationships with new corporations. Having GE and other major companies put their imprimatur on corporate pro bono legal service has been of immense benefit, encouraging other companies to partner with us. Where we as an organization have been particularly successful is in developing a very clear understanding of what volunteers hope to gain from working with the Pro Bono Partnership and how to ensure that their experience with us meets their expectations.

We put a lot of energy and effort into making sure we provide ongoing support in every matter we handle. Having said that, there are many volunteers who by virtue of their expertise require very little of us. As for those brave enough to take on something that stretches their professional skills, we find them appreciative of our assistance. In every case, we follow up at least three times a year with the volunteer attorneys to ascertain that the matter is proceeding smoothly and that their expectations have been met. Our ongoing support removes any perceived risks to volunteering. For example, in the extreme case, if a volunteer has an emergency at work and cannot address the pro bono matter on a timely basis, we will simply give the matter to someone else or handle it ourselves - and do so with a smile. We will do whatever it takes to make sure the experience is a positive one for our volunteers and our clients.

Editor: How is GE involved at the board and leadership levels?

Hobish: GE's General Counsel Brackett Denniston and senior labor and employment lawyer Mark Nordstrom, as well as former GE General Counsel Ben Heineman, sit on our board of 19 - a large representation, which demonstrates GE's ongoing commitment to our organization. The GE leadership always goes above and beyond the call of duty, serving as our finest good will ambassadors. I believe they lead by example: they truly are hands-on at the Partnership. We just produced a tenth anniversary video in which Brackett encourages other corporations to get involved by explaining the importance of our work in supporting our communities and the value to in-house attorneys who volunteer with us. GE has leveraged its reputation and good deeds into support from other corporations as well as law firms. I am speaking here first and foremost about their support of our programs, as is made evident by their numerous volunteers. But their participation as our most significant corporate financial supporter has also set a standard for other corporations, which is crucial in helping us raise funds from other corporations, law firms and foundations required to run our organization. I would be remiss if I failed to mention that there are many other corporations that have played leadership roles at the Partnership, partnering with us and helping ensure our success.

Editor: Where do you see the Pro Bono Partnership headed in the next few years?

Hobish: We are a nationally recognized model for the delivery of outstanding pro bono services. The Board would like to see the Partnership replicate our unique and successful program in other areas of the country by supporting the creation of more offices as we did in Hartford and Atlanta. At the same time we want to fortify and expand our local programs and continue to improve the nature of the services we provide to our neighbors in the tri-state area. We have an amazing staff of committed people and wonderful support from GE and the many other corporations and law firms that partner with us. I know I speak for the Board and staff in stating how much we are looking forward to meeting the challenges of our second decade of service to the community.

Please email the interviewee at rhobish@probonopartner.org with questions about this interview.