Lawyers Alliance For New York And MetLife: A Partnership In Pro Bono Service

Sunday, August 1, 2004 - 01:00

The Editor interviews Sean Delany, Executive Director, Lawyers Alliance for New York, and James L. Lipscomb, Executive Vice President and General Counsel, MetLife.

Editor: Would each of you gentlemen provide our readers with something of your background and experience?

I am a graduate of Columbia Law School and hold an LLM in corporate law from NYU Law School. I have spent my career at MetLife, the first 18 years as a real estate lawyer and the following ten years in various business capacities, including real estate investments, strategic planning and president and CEO of Conning Corporation, a former subsidiary of MetLife. Three years ago I returned to the law department as Deputy General Counsel and became Executive Vice President and General Counsel a year ago.

Delany: My career has been in the non-profit sector, in a variety of roles. Following graduation from the University of Virginia Law School, I worked in a legal services program in the South Bronx briefly and went on to the charities bureau of the New York Attorney General's Office for more than ten years. I was bureau chief when I left to join Lawyers Alliance in 1997. I became Executive Director of the Alliance in 1999.

Editor: James, you have spent your entire career with MetLife. Can you share with us some of the high points of your career?

Over 32 years there have been a many highlights. For the most part, it is the body of work that stands out for me. My work, as a lawyer and business person, in real estate development and investment, is one, as is my work in corporate and strategic planning. A particular highlight would be being named president and CEO of a subsidiary. Certainly being named to the position of Executive Vice President and General Counsel is a very significant highlight for me.

Editor: You have had a parallel career in civic and community affairs. Please tell us something about that.

Over the years I have been involved in a variety of activities. Currently I serve as the Chairman of the Board of the Citizens' Housing and Planning Council, a non-profit housing organization engaged in planning and zoning work in New York. I am also Vice Chair of the Citizens' Budget Commission, a non-partisan fiscal watchdog with respect to city and state budgets. For some time I have been involved with a group called Graffiti Ministries, which serves the homeless, people with AIDS and the impoverished on the Lower Eastside. More recently, I have been working to help an organization, the Center for Hope (Haiti), establish and operate an orphanage for children who have neither homes nor parents in the Hinche area of Haiti. This is one of the most desolate regions in a country that is simply devastated by poverty. Very little of the international aid that flows into the country seems to find its way to Hinche.

Editor: Sean, Lawyers Alliance for New York recently celebrated its 35th anniversary. Please tell us something about the evolution of the organization.

The Alliance was founded in 1969 as the Council of New York Law Associates. At the time, it was an opportunity for younger lawyers, associates at large law firms who did not have much chance to work together on service projects, to come together and work on a variety of undertakings to improve the quality of life in New York. Over the years, the organization has evolved into the leading provider of business law services for non-profit groups. Much of this is based on the gradual diminution of the role of government and the corresponding increase in the role of the non-profit sector in the life of our city. Today we work with more than 460 non-profit organizations, and we draw upon a network of 115 law firms and corporate legal departments to do so. Our volunteers provide these organizations with a variety of business legal services which include direct representation, educational seminars and workshops and hands-on guidance through any number of compliance issues.

Editor: I understand that you have more than 700 volunteers.

That is in any given year. Our pool of lawyers must be constantly replenished, and we are always looking for willing volunteers and volunteer institutions. I think we are part of a quiet revolution in the pro bono arena over the past ten years, a revolution that has brought lawyers who are not litigators more and more to the fore in the provision of pro bono services. I take a great deal of pride in the fact that the Alliance is something of a model for the delivery of pro bono business legal services to the nonprofit sector, through a network of law firm and corporate legal department lawyers, to non-profit organizations which would otherwise have no access to such services.

The large, full-service law firms which support the Alliance provide an ongoing flow of young associates from a variety of disciplines and practice areas. The corporate legal department lawyers who come to us tend to be further along in their careers and very often provide us with very specialized skills. We attempt to support both groups by providing backup from our own staff attorneys, and we co-counsel all matters and provide malpractice insurance wherever necessary. Among the celebrated corporate legal groups with which we work, in addition to MetLife, are Pfizer, Federated Department Stores and Colgate-Palmolive, among others.

Editor: How do you go about recruiting these attorneys?

In a number of ways. We have good connections, both with law firms and in the corporate community in New York. We initially focus our recruitment at the institutional level by discussing with people high up in the organization whether there is an interest in establishing a volunteer program in affiliation with the Alliance. We also publicize the availability of volunteer opportunities among a very wide group of individual lawyers. Concerning our corporate partners, it is about even as to whether participation is at the initiation of individual lawyers or undertaken as part of an institutional volunteer program.

Editor: James, would you tell us how MetLife became involved with the Alliance?

MetLife's involvement with Lawyers Alliance began in 1998 when our Senior Vice President and Chief Counsel, Ira Friedman, joined the Alliance governing board. My predecessor as MetLife's General Counsel, Gary Beller, was very supportive of Ira's involvment, and when I returned to the legal department and learned of the connection, I added my voice in encouraging our lawyers to participate in this undertaking. That support continues today. Ira has just completed his term as Chairman of the Board of the Alliance, and MetLife's Vice President and Corporate Secretary, Gwen Carr, is now joining the board.

Editor: Sean, would you tell us about the various programs that the Alliance conducts?

In light of its mission, the Alliance represents a wide array of non-profit community development and social service organizations in New York. Within that universe we have priorities, in which we attempt to develop the expertise of our in-house staff and focus the efforts of our volunteer group. One such priority is our Affordable Housing and Homeless Services program, in which we provide transactional law services to community-based organizations working to construct and rehabilitate residential properties for low-income tenants. Another priority, Economic Development, is focused on providing legal advice to community-based groups that foster economic growth and revitalize commercial life in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Our Children and Youth Services program works with nonprofits that are delivering all kinds of services to children and young people and also supports organizations engaged in public school improvement. The Immigrant Communities program is a new initiative designed to provide services to nonprofits that are the safety net for economically disadvantaged immigrant populations. New York has always been a city of immigrants, of course, but today there are substantial communities from parts of the world completely absent just a few years ago. To be initiated in the year 2004-2005 is a new program serving non-profits that are supporting the elderly, which is the fastest growing population in New York after very young children.

Editor: James, how does MetLife see its role in a city which has the needs Sean has just recited?

MetLife takes corporate citizenship very seriously. The company is 136 years old, and it has been based in New York over this entire period. Some 30 years ago we established an employee volunteer program encouraging all of our employees to get involved in service to the community. Just this past April, as part of volunteer week, not only in New York, but also throughout the country, our people taught in public schools, worked on housing construction sites, participated in reading programs, and so on. To encourage our people to take on these projects, MetLife makes $1,000 grants to any non-profit organization in which an employee becomes involved, and last year we spent $433,000 in this program. We are also involved as an institution with the United Way and in blood donations. Why do we do these things? MetLife is all about people - the people we serve and the people who work for us. Having a presence in the communities in which they live, reaching out and demonstrating our support for those communities, makes us a better employer and a better service provider. It is also the right thing to do.

Editor: Sean, perhaps you would be kind enough to tell us why the Alliance selected MetLife and James Lipscomb to be honored at its 35th anniversary celebration.

Corporate citizenship means a great many things, and James has been eloquent in expressing what it means to MetLife. We have a perspective on it as well, and he is very much representative of that perspective. James embodies a form of hands-on, personalized corporate citizenship that inspires everyone who values pro bono service. He has worked for many years with a number of non-profits affiliated with the Alliance, and of even greater moment, I would say, he has been an articulate spokesman both for those organizations and for the concept of community service. Corporate leaders like James are in a unique position to convey this message, and it is heard across the legal community. I believe that law firms are far more attentive to that message when it comes from someone in his position than from one of their law firm peers, particularly when that person backs his words up with deeds, as James does. He sets an example that gets attention, and that helps the Alliance to further its mission.

Editor: What about the future? Where would you like the Alliance to be in, say, ten years?

We have embarked upon a campaign that we call our Anniversary Campaign to raise $10 million dollars for the Alliance's program expansion and for an endowment. New York has the largest non-profit sector in the country - we need to reach more of these organizations - as well as the largest concentration of business lawyers of any city in the world - and we need to involve more of them. The role of government has changed, permanently in my view, and the role of non-profit organizations in serving people in need is only going to become more important with the passage of time. I would hope that in ten years time the Alliance will be doing the kinds of things it is doing today, only more so.

Editor: And MetLife? Do you anticipate the two organizations will be working together as they are now?

Absolutely. Ira has been involved for over six years and we expect him to continue to be involved. Gwenn is joining the board and I know she will be an active participant. Beyond the leadership roles, many of our associates will be encouraged to work with the Alliance as well as other community organizations. There is much that the two organizations can and will do together.