Leading The Ohio Legal Community To Ensure Access To Justice For The Poor

Sunday, August 1, 2004 - 01:00

Editor: Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease LLP ("VSSP") was in the vanguard of law firms signing the American Bar Association's (ABA's) Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge. Please tell us about the challenge.

The ABA's pro bono challenge asks law firms to commit a percentage of their billable hours to pro bono work depending on the firm's size. We are the only Ohio firm that I am aware of that has accepted the ABA's challenge. We report the number of our pro bono hours to the ABA each year, and we are typically in range of our 3 percent commitment to the ABA Challenge.

Editor: How has VSSP honored its commitment to fulfilling its pro bono responsibilities?

Throughout our firm, we share a sense of professional obligation to share our legal skills and talents with those who would not otherwise have access to the legal system. The Supreme Court of Ohio, like the highest courts in most states, sets an ethical expectation that lawyers perform pro bono legal work for people who are in need of legal assistance but cannot afford it. Although we live in a great country with wonderful legal rights, without access to the legal system, these legal rights might as well not even exist. Therefore, we encourage our attorneys to commit their time and talents to any of a large variety of pro bono opportunities within our local and broader communities. We then calculate each of our attorneys' pro bono hours towards our pro bono commitment each year.

Editor: Please give an example or two of your experiences doing pro bono work.

My first pro bono case was representing a church. The church found itself in small claims court because a tree on its property had fallen onto a shed on the neighboring property. After replacing it with an expensive shed, the neighbor presented an enormous bill to the church. Because the church was incorporated, it could not represent itself in the small claims court. Representing the church, we were able to show that, because the tree had fallen in a wind storm, the church was not liable for negligence in any way for the tree falling.

When we won the case, I remember getting a note from each parishioner in the parish thanking me for representing them. It was not the hardest case I had to handle, but for the church at that moment it was the most important thing they had going on. The neighbor's enormous bill would have diverted funds from the church's missions and charitable endeavors.
I've handled a variety of other pro bono matters, including general litigation matters, benefits appeals, and domestic violence cases for women who need civil protection orders. I have also represented homeless shelter residents on a variety of matters. I am currently working on a death penalty habeas case. I have found these cases to be wonderful opportunities to help those who would otherwise not have someone to represent them throughout the legal process.

Editor: What steps does the firm's leadership take to ensure that pro bono opportunities are available to all VSSP's attorneys?

I came to VSSP because community service and pro bono work are such a fundamental part of the firm's culture. A part of the Columbus community for almost 95 years, VSSP is one of the oldest law firms in town. The Columbus community has been extremely good to us, and the same can be said about the communities in which our other offices are located.

To make a difference for the communities in which we live and work, we not only provide the finest legal services for our paying clients, but also we are integrated into the fabric of the community. Our community outreach involves serving on community boards and supporting local charitable and civic projects.
A fundamental element of our community involvement is our contribution of legal services for those who cannot afford it. Our firm has been committed to community involvement from day one. Our firm's leadership has always encouraged all of our attorneys to perform pro bono work.

While our leadership does not make pro bono work mandatory, it is encouraged. We are lucky to have outstanding resources within the firm Ñ both in terms of computer systems and research tools. The depth of our legal talent is also important. Our lawyers have done all sorts of things and are enthusiastic about guiding our young associates in pro bono cases.

All of our lawyers feel good when taking pro bono opportunities and handle the matters with great enthusiasm as something they want to do.

Editor: How are pro bono hours treated by the firm's leadership?

Our firm has a loose billable-hour target for our lawyers. We do not consider the hours that we expend as being the most important thing in evaluating our lawyers. We look at each lawyer as a whole, considering all the components that make up that person.

Being a good lawyer is not just about cranking out hours. It also involves a sincere commitment to the community. Involvement in the community allows a lawyer to develop the interpersonal skills and contacts that can help provide a base for client development. Pro bono work can be an important part of this development in terms of understanding what problems clients face and gaining experience in resolving conflicts.

Editor: Please describe the range of the pro bono projects undertaken by the firm's lawyers.

As a fairly large firm with over 350 lawyers, we have a great depth of experience and wide range of expertise. Our largest office is in Columbus with approximately 220 lawyers. We also have lawyers in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Akron, Washington, D.C. and Alexandria, VA.

Many of our litigators contribute their expertise and experience to pro bono landlord/tenant cases, social security appeals and consumer protection cases. Our probate lawyers assist with issues related to pro bono estate matters. Our corporate and tax lawyers assist nonprofits with obtaining their 501(c)(3) status or in drafting their articles of incorporation. We run the entire gamut of legal expertise, and we try to get our lawyers involved with projects in which they might have an interest or expertise.

Editor: Please tell our readers about your role as VSSP's pro bono coordinator.

My role as our firm's pro bono coordinator takes only a couple of hours a week. I enjoy the work tremendously and do not find the time commitment to be burdensome at all. I handle the intake of cases, which come primarily through our local bar association and legal aid. Other referral services throughout Ohio send us cases, too. For example, the Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation asks us to partner with them on a variety of their programs and projects.

When a case is referred to me, I match our talent pool with the projects depending on the areas in which our attorneys have expressed an interest. About two or three cases are referred to our firm each week. Some we can take; others we cannot because of conflicts. Occasionally a matter cannot be taken because our lawyers with the most relevant legal expertise cannot take it in a particular week. When the next case comes down the line, however, they are always willing to consider taking it then.

As well as getting projects in the door and matching our attorneys with those projects they want to do, I hear a lot of young lawyers saying that they would like to get involved with certain types of pro bono projects. I listen, and we work together to find the organizations that need the relevant expertise.

Editor: What practical tips do you have for other pro bono coordinators?

The most critical step is to get your firm's leadership involved. Leading by example, committing resources and encouraging lawyers with all levels of experience to take on pro bono projects are among the many ways a firm's leaders can create an environment that fosters and encourages pro bono legal work.

Once pro bono work is seen as part of the firm's culture, it is important to keep its pro bono-friendly atmosphere energized. One of the best ways to do this is to match the interests of the firm's volunteer lawyers with any of the vast number of pro bono opportunities available.
If someone does not have an interest in something, they are not going to want to do that work. Based on the varied opportunities we make available to our lawyers, all are more than willing to jump into a pro bono project. In addition, many of our lawyers suggest pro bono projects to me that they'd like to get involved in.

Editors: In what ways can pro bono work be professionally and personally rewarding?

Pro bono work can be really good for lawyers and law firms for many different reasons. From a business development standpoint, you never know whom you are going to meet while working at a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen. You may meet other lawyers who are great sources of referrals, or you may meet a business executive also contributing his or her time. You also may help a pro bono client who might, some day, become a very loyal paying client.

Pro bono work can be a great training ground for young lawyers. So much of legal work today is high-stakes work. Many cases involve so much money that it is a difficult environment for young lawyers, in particular litigators, to obtain experience working on their own cases. For instance, a firm may understandably be reluctant to have a first or second year lawyer handle a $3 million dollar case on his or her own. On the other hand, a small claims matter for a pro bono client can be a great training ground for young lawyers to get practical experience they might not otherwise get.

As well as these professional benefits, pro bono work is often-times personally satisfying work. I find that in representing pro bono clients, typically the matter is the most important thing in their lives and, as a result, they are the most appreciative people that you will ever have as clients.

Please email the interviewee at lpreisz@vssp.com with questions about this interview.