Supporting Pro Bono Initiatives Is Common Sense

Friday, September 1, 2006 - 01:00

Editor: Why is pro bono considered so important at this time?

Krauss: Downsizing throughout the past decade is a highly visible symptom of today's tough economic climate. As more and more organizations make do with less, payrolls shrink, and many worry about having enough money for food and other basic needs, the stakes are higher than they used to be, and life is getting more complicated. Having a lawyer who knows court procedures, the tax infrastructure and other aspects of our legal system can make a tremendous difference in someone's life.

Editor: What factors do you evaluate before taking on a pro bono initiative?

Krauss: Our clients' and community's needs are first and foremost - regardless of whether our representation is pro bono or compensated. We ask if we can help solve the client's problem - because some problems cannot be solved by lawyers. This needs to be made clear to the client upfront.

We always run a conflict check, of course, and ensure the initiative meets the criteria of our pro bono program - designed to provide legal representation to the indigent or others who could not normally afford a lawyer.

Editor: Congratulations on the many awards your firm has received for its pro bono initiatives. Please tell us about a few.

Krauss: Our attorneys regularly devote more than 15,000 hours annually to pro bono work. For the services we provide, American Lawyer recognized us as one of the leading Philadelphia firms, and the Philadelphia Bar Association awarded the firm its prestigious William J. Brennan Award. Our individual attorneys have also been honored for their work in their respective states, including receiving the 2005 Amicus Award from the Northwest Immigration Rights Project. These are just a few examples.

At Cozen O'Connor, we believe the profession's pro bono obligations extend to each practicing attorney. It is not good enough to write a check to a worthy organization that does pro bono work. We expect all of our attorneys to use their professional expertise to help those less fortunate.

Editor: What sustains your firm's long-term commitment to incorporating pro bono initiatives into your practice?

Krauss: Not only is pro bono the right thing to do, but also it makes us better lawyers. Whether handling a death penalty case that takes years to resolve or staffing a table to answer legal questions at the Homeless Advocacy Project, making a difference in people's lives feels great. I know that I've made a difference because they look me in the eye, shake my hand, smile and say "thank you so much."

We cannot right all the wrongs we see around us. What we must do is to try to right some of the wrongs. This philosophy underpins Cozen O'Connor's pro bono and public service commitment.

Editor: Please tell our readers about your work with Philabundance.

Krauss: Serving as the treasurer for Philabundance - which gathers food that would otherwise be wasted and distributes it to organizations that support those in need - goes above and beyond my pro bono work. I got involved with Philabundance a long time ago because of how lucky I am. I have never had to tell my children that I cannot provide food for them - I have an obligation to help those who are not fortunate enough to say that.

Most people who need help from organizations like Philabundance have experienced a tragedy and need a helping hand. I did not get to where I am today without the help of my parents, teachers, mentors and many others. Because I can never pay them back, I have an obligation to pay forward. It's our duty to leave for our children a better world than the one our parents left for us.

Editor: How is serving on a community board distinguished from contributing pro bono services?

Krauss: The American Bar Association defines pro bono work as providing legal services to those who cannot afford to pay for them. For example, drafting a local organization's charter may be pro bono work, but serving as a soccer coach is not. Similarly, when I help Philabundance to pack food boxes, I am not providing legal services, while in the death penalty case I clearly did.

Pro bono work is not just for litigators like me. Cozen O'Connor attorneys, from all different practices, are providing needed pro bono services to countless community organizations, including United Way, the Philadelphia Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts and the Volunteers for the Indigent Program.

Editor: What does your firm's work with the United Way involve?

Krauss: Our corporate lawyers help United Way's charitable groups form nonprofit companies, give advice to their boards, and answer questions about the bylaws. They contribute other legal services as well, such as defining the legal structures for financing transactions needed to acquire land or construct buildings.

We also specifically support its Campaign for Working Families, which focuses on helping the disadvantaged file their tax returns and claim the earned income tax credit that gives a partial match to low-income earners. The credit offers an extra incentive in taking a low-wage job or first job that can enhance independence and self-sufficiency. Because the process is very complicated, many people who could claim the credit do not. The United Way estimates that, if claimed correctly, low-income earners in the greater Philadelphia area would be refunded tens of millions of dollars. Our corporate lawyers are wonderful at giving tax advice and assisting those in need navigate tax agencies' requirements - we want to help people claim what they deserve.

Editor: Why would you encourage attorneys new to the profession to continue in your and Cozen O'Connor's footsteps of contributing time and talents to pro bono work?

Krauss: Pro bono work makes you a better lawyer. For younger lawyers, providing pro bono services is a way to take ownership of a project. Few lawyers have the chance to try a case in court immediately out of law school, but they do get calls from organizations in their neighborhoods, and friends and family asking for legal advice. Being involved in these projects exposes young lawyers to client relationship development and project management/coordination. And, at the end of the day, they have the satisfaction of saying they were able to bring the matter to a close.

Editor: How does support for a young attorney's pro bono work reflect the firm's culture?

Krauss: The primary reason that young lawyers go to a firm is for training and other support. Our firm culture is collegial, supportive and cooperative. Whether long-time partners or new associates, our lawyers can walk down the hall or pick up the phone to discuss a question with a colleague. Our institutional knowledge is an invaluable resource for a young lawyer.

All the practical skills needed for a thriving practice often cannot be learned in the classroom. Learning how to take a deposition is best done by observing a more senior lawyer and then applying these skills to your own cases. I have been extremely fortunate to have gone to trials with our President and CEO Pat O'Connor. Watching him in action has done more to teach me how to try a case than any lecture.

Our pro bono projects are an extension of our firm's culture. For example, on a pro bono matter for Philabundance, I mentored a young associate on a specific case. Although I supervised the work, he handled the filings and was able to sign the pleadings. We won that case and got a good result for the client. The hands-on experience under a more experienced attorney's supervision helps a young lawyer build self-confidence.

Editor: Why should in-house counsel take into consideration whether a firm does pro bono work?

Krauss: Among the many reasons is that pro bono work shows that the firm cares about the community. A firm with substantial pro bono commitment puts its heart and soul into the legal profession. That is, the firm cares about the quality of its representation; it will not shut off its efforts when the attorneys get tired or when the going gets tough. It will go the extra mile.

Our firm is working to make the world a better place - and that is how most our clients view themselves, too. If you ask successful clients why they are offering a product or service, they will not say to make money. They will explain what drives their business - whether it is to build a better mousetrap or to save the environment. They want that same passion and commitment from their lawyers.

Editor: Do you work in tandem with in-house counsel on public service projects?

Krauss: Philabundance is an example where in-house counsel and Cozen O'Connor have joined forces in our public service efforts. We helped a large corporate client organize their 50 or so volunteers to spend a day helping Philabundance pack food. Teams have also connected with various agencies through Philabundance, helping those organizations serve meals to the homeless and hungry. The team building experience is great.

Another great example of a partnership is our program with GlaxoSmith-Kline, where Cozen O'Connor attorneys are paired with in-house counsel there to handle family law matters. This allows attorneys at both companies to do pro bono work that they might not otherwise have had the opportunity to do.

Editor: What should we expect from your firm in the future in the way of pro bono work?

Krauss: Cozen O'Connor has remained and will continue to remain dedicated to providing pro bono services. In addition to expanding our partnerships with in-house counsel, we are looking to form pro bono "practice groups" based on the background and interests of our attorneys. Cozen O'Connor's commitment to offering legal services to those in need is one that pervades our entire firm, starting with our founders and extending to our summer associates.

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