Five years ago Eric Kobrick, deputy general counsel at American International Group, Inc. (AIG), played an integral role in starting a formal pro bono program for the several hundred employees in AIG’s Global Legal Compliance and Regulatory function to provide legal services to non-profit organizations and persons of limited means. Since then, the number of participants has more than tripled, steadily increasing from approximately 65 the first year to 226 last year. Kobrick’s goal, admittedly ambitious and perhaps unrealistic, is to involve every licensed lawyer at the company. He recounts how the program was built and offers advice to in-house counsel who’d like to establish a similar program at their own companies. The interview has been edited for length and style.
When did you first get involved in pro bono work?
Kobrick: I was at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett for eight years prior to coming to AIG. I did substantial pro bono work while there. In 2011, by which time I was at AIG, I went to then-general counsel Tom Russo and talked to him about starting a formal pro bono program. Tom was extremely supportive of that. He viewed pro bono as making us better people, making us better lawyers and making us a better, more cohesive department. "Do what you need to do to get it up and running," he told me.
Was that the first time AIG had a formal pro bono program?
Kobrick: Yes. There had been various AIG lawyers who'd done pro bono work individually, as well as public service work, but the program that we started putting together in 2011, which rolled out on leap day, February 29, 2012, was the first formal AIG pro bono program.
How did you organize it?
Kobrick: I got in touch with the Pro Bono Institute. They have a great website with lots of resources for companies to set up a pro bono program. I very heavily utilized those resources, as well as talked to a number of the senior officials at the Institute. Tom Russo and I really wanted a program that was sustainable, that would outlast Tom, outlast me and serve AIG well through the decades to come. We’ve been very happy to see that sustainability with the strong support of General Counsel Peter Solmssen. We formed a pro bono committee and put together a survey to understand what areas people were interested in working in, what might inhibit them from doing pro bono work, what might facilitate them in doing pro bono work, and what their past experiences were, perhaps with other companies or law firms doing pro bono work. The only instance where I didn't follow the Pro Bono Institute's guidance was their suggestion that we pick an anchor project and get people to gravitate toward that. I thought it made more sense for it to be homegrown, so we decided, “Let's see what people are naturally drawn to without us pushing them in any particular direction.”
We drafted a policy that governed all the rules about participating in the program. We developed a newsletter. We prepared template forms for people, retention agreements and the like. We set up an awards program. We got insurance. We interviewed various nonprofit organizations to see whether or not we wanted to partner with them. I was surprised at the number of decision points that were necessary in setting up a program. I tried to think through them all with the help of the Pro Bono Institute and cover as many as possible.
What were some of the early projects?
Kobrick: When we set it up, we partnered directly with a bunch of nonprofit organizations rather than go through outside law firms. One of the organizations is the International Refugee Assistance Project, which helps refugees whose lives are in imminent danger by virtue of work they did supporting our armed forces overseas, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan or the like. We got involved in a special immigration program that helps prepare applications and shepherd these individuals through the resettlement process so that they and their families will be safe. We've had dozens of lawyers participate, and we've had several individuals successfully resettle into the United States.
One of the stated themes of AIG’s pro bono program is “providing legal services to nonprofit organizations and persons of limited means.” What are the services you have provided to individuals and organizations that you are most proud of?
Kobrick: Clearly we're very proud of the work we've done for the International Refugee Assistance Project. Another would be the work we've done with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and Advocates for Children. A number of AIG lawyers have worked on cases for autistic children and children with other special needs to get the educational services they're entitled to.
Also, for the Street Law Program, we are not technically providing legal advice, but we've never taken that narrow a view of the pro bono program. Street Law is a nonprofit organization that develops programs for schools with diverse young people who probably don't know many lawyers and don't really think about a career in the law as something that they can realistically aspire to. We partnered with them and schools in New York, Los Angeles and now Houston to open these kids' eyes and let them know that it really is cool and special to be a lawyer, and if they put their minds to it, there's no reason why they can't be lawyers. It’s giving them a taste of what it's like to be a lawyer, doing workshops for them and trying to make it as practical as possible, focusing on issues like cyberbullying and legal topics that teenagers can identify with. This is the type of project where not only licensed lawyers can participate but others in our law department as well.
What do you and your colleagues get out of providing free services?
Kobrick: In my mind there are three major things. One is I really do think it makes us better people, makes us appreciate what we have. Helping others is obviously incredibly fulfilling. Two, I think it makes us better lawyers. There have been a lot of instances where AIG attorneys have worked on matters that they've had to get training on, that bear no relationship to what they do on a daily basis. You might be a mergers and acquisitions lawyer. Now you're helping a child get educational services that they're entitled to. You might be a real estate lawyer, and you're helping a first responder, a firefighter or a police officer prepare their will or other end-of-life documents. There are many, many instances when the program gets us out of our comfort zone and makes us really think about the law again and extend our boundaries. We ensure that these individuals have appropriate training and support. Almost all of our projects are worked on as a team. If John Doe doesn't have a particular expertise in certain areas, odds are Jane Doe can help fill in the gap. Otherwise, we’ll get them that training. It has really made us all more well-rounded lawyers. Last, it has made us a stronger and more cohesive department. Like I just referenced, a lot of the work is being done as a team. Our lawyers are meeting others in the department who they never would have had contact with but for the pro bono program. We've won multiple awards as a result of the work we've done in the program. That also enhances a sense of pride and accomplishment among individuals in the group.
At the end of the day, nothing is more important than helping individuals in need and the fulfillment you get from doing that, and the appreciation that they express is all the thanks that anybody should rightfully expect.
Are your lawyers encouraged to participate, and are they pressured to participate?
Kobrick: The program is strictly voluntary. Nobody is mandated to do it, and it's not frowned upon if you don't do it. There's no question that you're encouraged to do it. We make it as easy as possible for people to get involved. If you need to go to court in the middle of the day on a pro bono matter, you don't have to sneak out the back staircase. You could without hesitation tell colleagues that you're going to court on a pro bono matter and say that with pride. There's zero stigma attached to doing it, and you're able to use company resources to assist you in your matter. We have a budget available to fund the miscellaneous costs that may be associated with a matter. If you are participating, we facilitate that participation as much as possible.
If you do participate, you're still obviously expected to get your day job done in a timely way and to get it done well. We provide people with the resources and tools so they are able to balance their day-to-day job as well as any pro bono commitments that they make. I'd love to see every single AIG employee throughout the world who has a law license do some pro bono work. It's probably an unrealistic objective, but that would be my perfect state if I could accomplish it.
How has AIG's pro bono program changed during its five years of existence, both quantitatively in terms of what the numbers tell you and more qualitatively?
Kobrick: The number of personnel and total hours have grown significantly since the outset. From 2012 through 2016, the number of AIG personnel who have worked on pro bono matters has more than tripled, and they provided about 11,600 aggregate hours of service.
In terms of qualitatively, early on we had to decide whether we'd find pro bono opportunities for people, or whether we would let people bring their own pet projects to the pro bono committee for approval. We decided on a hybrid approach. They could bring a project to AIG's attention, and provided it met all of our criteria, they could work on it as part of our overall pro bono program. But also AIG's pro bono committee would vet organizations so there would be opportunities for people to choose from. We didn't really focus on any one particular area. As time has gone on, we've gravitated to a few bigger, naturally developed signature projects – the International Refugee Assistance Project, the Street Law project and the work we do for special needs children. There's also a bunch of projects we work on with the Justice Center of the New York City Bar Association. We've been very involved with them with a neighborhood entrepreneur law project and veterans assistance. Gravitating toward a few bigger projects and not as many one-offs as when the program first formed is one of the qualitative changes.
You mentioned a newsletter. How often does it appear, and how do you use it? What are the benefits you find in publicizing through this newsletter?
Kobrick: For a number of years it went out roughly on a quarterly basis. It's been a little less frequent recently. We're conscious of inundating people with information. It was more critical in the formative years of the program to get that newsletter out because the main objective was to raise awareness of the program. One major purpose of the newsletter was to show people that it is possible to do pro bono work and do your AIG job and do them both well. We wanted to show people that there are scores of their colleagues who are able to find that balance, and that they shouldn't feel that they'd be confined to work in the area that they practice in on a day-to-day basis. We wanted to explain to them that there was training. Also, to give recognition to people who did pro bono work. It's always nice to read about yourself in a newsletter sent to all of your colleagues when the newsletter highlights your good work.
In the last few years we've had a pro bono month, a dedicated month when organizations come in and explain what they do and how AIG lawyers can get involved. We'll have training sessions. Lawyers always need continuing legal education credits, so we're very much interested in organizations that can give a training session on the ethics issues involved in doing pro bono work or how to advise nonprofit organizations. People get their CLE credits, and they also learn about pro bono opportunities that might interest them.
Why should other in-house lawyers consider getting involved in this kind of work, whether formally through their company or not? Are there reasons that apply to in-house lawyers that wouldn't apply to outside lawyers or others?
Kobrick: It's a little more of a challenge in-house than it is at a law firm. Law firms by definition are all about the law, whereas in a company the legal department is one of many areas. Legal services are not the sole focus of the company's activities. I think providing pro bono legal services is not as embedded in the culture of companies as it is in law firms, so it's probably a little more challenging to do pro bono work at a company than it is at a law firm.
As we've obviously proven at AIG, those challenges are surmountable, and it's extraordinarily worthwhile. I would encourage every in-house lawyer working at a company that does not have a pro bono program to set one up. I know of at least two instances of AIG lawyers who were very involved in AIG's pro bono program who left AIG and then played instrumental roles in setting up pro bono programs at the companies they went to. It is extremely rewarding to see other companies modeling their pro bono programs after AIG's.
Eric Kobrick is a deputy general counsel at American International Group, Inc. (AIG) and general counsel of its commercial insurance and insurance services. He also heads the company’s pro bono program.
Published October 11, 2017.