Meeting the Challenge Head-On: When the Pro Bono Institute threw down the gauntlet, Duke Energy picked it up

Garry Rice is deputy general counsel at Duke Energy, which employs about 70 lawyers spread among eight offices. Rice, who has worked at the company for 30 years, heads the environmental, health and safety legal group. For the past three years he has also chaired the law department’s pro bono team, which has created some unusual incentives to encourage lawyers to participate in the program. The interview has been edited for style and length.

How important was the Pro Bono Institute’s Corporate Pro Bono Challenge, issued in 2006, in your company’s launching its program three years later?

Garry Rice: The Corporate Pro Bono Challenge was pivotal. I don’t think we were doing anything systematically prior to that time. As I recall, the challenge was to have 50 percent participation over a two-year period. That was actually before I was on the pro bono team. We had another lawyer who chaired it at that time, and our general counsel was Mark Manly, who has since retired. That was the reinvigoration, if you will, of any sort of coordinated pro bono effort. I’m sure there were some of us who did pro bono on our own, but there wasn’t anything really coordinated at the department level..

Why did Duke Energy decide to form a pro bono committee and produce a newsletter?

Rice: I guess it was kind of like the Articles of Confederation originally – a loose affiliation that then became more formalized. It was designed to meet this pro bono challenge. When we started, it wasn’t just lawyers. There are lots of pro bono opportunities for lawyers through the local bar, through the state bar – many more opportunities than there are, say, for administrative assistants. And we wanted to include them. The way that we decided to meet this goal, and all our other goals, was to make the commitment level attractive and not overwhelming, at least to start. And we had to come up with opportunities and roles for everyone – the lawyers, the paralegals, the administrative assistants.

Do your statistics refer to the entire law department, including administrative assistants and paralegals and the lawyers?

Rice: Yes and no. We started off with just 50 percent of everybody. As time went on, we started to differentiate because we had some categories and some offices with higher participation levels than others. We now have a three-tiered goal, which is 70 percent participation by everybody, 70 percent by the lawyers generally and 100 percent by the lawyers who report directly to the general counsel.

Quite frankly, the reason for that is that it’s hard to get people to be motivated if the leadership isn’t motivated. On the other hand, if all of the senior VPs throughout the different practice areas are involved in doing some pro bono, it makes it a whole lot easier to get the people that report to them involved.: But the pro bono ethic was originally directed at lawyers. We didn’t think it was appropriate for us to achieve our 70 percent goal primarily on the backs of the paralegals and the admins and have a less than 70 percent goal for the lawyers themselves. That’s how we ended up with that three-tier goal structure.

I understand that Duke Energy decided to link those performance goals to annual performance bonuses. Are individuals’ bonuses tied to their own pro bono performances, or are bonuses linked to the entire department’s performance?

Rice: Our compensation structure across the company provides a base salary and then what you might call an at-risk incentive component. That at-risk incentive component itself has multiple components, and one of those is a team/department goal. That team or department goal is, once again, made up of a number of things, and pro bono is one of them. We also have diversity goals, for instance.

There are about two or three goals that are these department-wide team goals. Depending on how well we do on those, that is a component of our overall incentive pay. There are other components that are more individually tailored to your specific areas of practice. But when it comes to distributing the actual incentive dollars, managers have discretion.

Very interesting. Do you think it’s unusual for corporate law departments like yours to tie pro bono performance to compensation?

Rice: I’m probably not totally qualified to answer that, but I will say that the way we’ve done it is pretty extensive. It’s not such a dominant component of your pay that it’s going to prompt you to do something that you’re opposed to doing. I do think that it provides an additional incentive, and a bit of peer pressure, if you will, the way it’s done, because it’s a team goal. Your contribution is important to me. Not only do I want to be at the event, but I also want you to be at the event.

I know there are law firms that will sometimes say to their associates, “You have annual billable hour goals, but you can count pro bono hours toward those goals.” In a sense, they’re actually providing a financial incentive for pro bono.

The other thing is that if the upper-level leaders in your law department are supposed to come in at 100 percent, there is sort of additional pressure on them.

Rice: Yeah, especially when midway through the year, six out of seven have done it, and one hasn’t. Part of the challenge is to be realistic about what people can do, and to create opportunities, events, whatever you want to call them, where the people can participate – that they’re not somehow put off by the difficulty of it and that it works with their schedule.

It’s not like they have to meet 80 hours a year, right?

Rice: No, there is no hourly requirement. If we have a wills clinic, we typically do morning and afternoon shifts. Some people stay all day, but some might be there from 8 a.m. to noon, and they might work with maybe three groups of clients – singles, single individuals or couples or whatnot – and do three wills, three powers of attorney, three health care powers of attorney, and then they’re done for the year, if that’s all they want to do.

What are the benefits of pro bono performance for the individuals who participate?

Rice: It may sound hokey, but I would say the main benefit is psychic: “I did something to help somebody.” I think we shouldn’t understate the value of that because many, many of lawyers in general, certainly the ones who work here, work on things that go on for months or years. They can work on projects for a long, long time and not see any resolution. Here they see immediate results.

And what do the pro bono clients get out of your program?

Rice: I think they tend to be very appreciative, most of them. The types of projects that we’ve focused on are wide-ranging. They include wills events, so they can walk away with a will, and probably the most valuable parts of it are the health care power of attorney and the durable power of attorney that will help them if they are incapacitated. Most of these people have small estates, so maybe the will itself is not all that helpful, but the other documents, I think, certainly are.

We’ve also done quite a few criminal-record expunction cases. The motivation for these people is typically that they’re trying to get a job, or they’re trying to get some housing, and they’ve got an arrest on their record from years ago. They’re not getting job interviews. They’re being disqualified. They have to check that box on the application where it says, “Have you ever been arrested?” and they have to say yes. In many cases, the charges have been dismissed. They’ve never been convicted of anything. Obviously, what they’re getting out of it is a clean slate, or at least, in some cases, a cleaner slate.

One of the things we’ve been doing for many years in Cincinnati, in conjunction with the University of Cincinnati, is a small-business legal advisory day. If you own your own business and need help with a lease or a contract or just want talk to a lawyer about a potential problem, you get to come in and get some free legal advice. We have lawyers who in the past have worked with various charities, like the Alexander Youth Network, which provides various services for children with mental health issues. We’ve also had custody cases, where we’ve assisted children or parents with establishing custody or permanent residency in the United States and maybe getting their immigration status cleared up.

What are the benefits for your entire law department, as one entity?

Rice: One of the biggest benefits is that Duke Energy is really part of the community here – we’ve been here for over 100 years. We have customers all over the place, and we interact with community leaders. We have a program at the corporate level called Volunteers in Action that has traditionally gone out and done service projects in the community – like planting a garden at a retirement center or a drug rehab center or working with some children’s charity group.

That’s great, and we do that as a company, but our general counsel, Julie Jansen, is of the opinion – and I agree with her – that those of us in the legal department have a particular skill that the rest of the company doesn’t have. We’re licensed to do things like draft wills and write briefs and represent clients in various ways. So we try to make our Volunteer in Action events pro bono events. The advantage to the company, and therefore the department, is that the community sees that the company really cares about the community, cares about the people.

Do you think it also creates a sense of solidarity, working together as a team?

Rice: That’s a great point. I think it does because one of the peculiar things about in-house legal departments is that the people there tend to be somewhat specialized. I work more with internal clients in other departments than I do with some of my colleagues here in the legal department. When we have a wills event, for example, we’re all in the room together. It helps create that family atmosphere that makes working together a little bit more enjoyable. You get to know people, and once you get to know people, I think, generally, you tend to like them better.

What lessons have you learned from your experiences with pro bono work, either directly or through observation?

Rice: Well, one is to be very thankful and grateful for what I have, because there are a lot of people out there in need, some through no fault of their own. I also think I have gained more appreciation for my own skills and ability to help. When you hang around with lawyers, you tend to think everybody is like a lawyer, and maybe you undervalue your own skills and abilities. When you sit down with people who know nothing about legal jargon, you realize, “Hey, I’m really making a difference in this person’s life, because they don’t know any of this.” The things I take for granted, some of which maybe I do every day, but many of which I learned in law school and don’t do that often, are really helping them.

You know, I personally like helping people. I work at a company that provides something essential. People really can’t live without electricity, but I can spend many, many days not really making the kind of human connection that comes with helping somebody pro bono. In addition to it being something that is typically a shorter-term solution, it’s gratifying to know that this individual is appreciative of what I’ve been able to do for them.

Why should other in-house lawyers consider getting involved in this work? Are there special reasons for them that don’t necessarily apply to lawyers who don’t work in-house?

Rice: My guess is that if you look at all firms that do pro bono versus in-house counsel that do pro bono, there’s probably a higher percentage of those in private practice that do it. I think part of that might be based on large firms having very specific programs and very, very small firms just being in closer contact with people who have needs. I think it’s easier for people in-house, in a corporation, to get disconnected from those individual needs. At the same time, because they often feel like they don’t have the skills that are needed, they just basically let that pro bono ethic atrophy.

I don’t know that there is a greater call for them to participate than any other lawyer. I think the call comes from being a lawyer. I think that it’s probably easier to get away with not doing any pro bono in a corporate legal department. I think it takes more intentional effort to overcome that inertia.

Garry Rice is deputy general counsel for Duke Energy, where he hads the environmental, health and safety legal group. Rice also chairs the pro bono team. He can be reached at

Published October 11, 2017.