Letter from Philip Crowley, Board of Directors, ACCNJ

2014-11-18 12:38

Pro Bono Perspectives from the Corporate Bar

The Bar has a tradition of pitching in to help the local community.

That’s just as true of the in-house corporate bar here in New Jersey. The parameters of the help are just a bit different from pro bono work at law firms. At the firms, there’s more of a tendency to work on litigation. Typically, all the lawyers involved are admitted to practice in the jurisdiction, as they must be to appear in court in the ordinary course. It’s a bit more complex in the corporate environment.

There, lawyers may be working with limited in-house licenses. So, while they’re qualified to work for their corporations, they’re not able to hold themselves out to perform legal services for others. And even for corporate counsel with plenary licenses, the skill set and interests favor more counseling-type engagements. It’s more like the services we render on a day-to-day basis.

The question is how to match the skill sets of corporate lawyers with the needs of not-for-profit organizations that need the help. Fortunately, a number of groups have grown up over the years to perform the job of “matchmaker” – and to benefit both the not-for-profits and the lawyers involved. Over the past 14 years, my company’s law department has worked with Pro Bono Partnership.

Pro Bono Partnership began its work in New York, and then expanded to New Jersey and finally Connecticut. It also helped launch affiliates in Atlanta and Cincinnati. Since their founding in 1997, they’ve helped almost 2,000 community nonprofits that needed counseling or transaction-related legal services. In the Parsippany, New Jersey office, they have three dedicated staff lawyers – who collectively have been practicing law for 97 years, half of which as in-house counsel – who can supervise matters handled by lawyers with limited in-house licenses and provide insight and advice on the few unique issues that arise from time to time with nonprofits. And, in addition to helping us feel good about our contributions to our communities, they help us fulfill our requirements to the NJ Supreme Court.

Pursuant to its landmark decision in Madden v. Delran, 126 N.J. 591 (1992), the New Jersey Supreme Court requires that lawyers admitted to practice with a plenary license make themselves available to take assigned cases in criminal litigation.  Typically, the matters involve charges that could result in prison time for the defendant of up to one year or less. For a non-litigator, it would be a bit of a struggle for me to handle a matter of that type. And it would take me much more time than a practitioner for whom that is part of his or her ordinary practice.

The benefit of groups such as Pro Bono Partnership is that their stable of projects focuses on application of law to civil matters, e.g., corporate bylaws, tax issues, employee handbooks, drafting contracts. And the lawyer involved can select the project or projects and the nonprofits in which he or she is most interested. Donating 25 hours to services to Partnership clients over a year satisfies the “assigned case” obligation for those of us with plenary law licenses.[1]  And it provides a way for those with limited in-house licenses to experience the benefits of giving back to their communities.

Dozens of my colleagues in our Law Department have handled well over 100 matters over the years. And we’re not alone. Many other companies, as well as Association of Corporate Counsel – New Jersey (“ACCNJ”), our local chapter of the international in-house bar association, has been active as well.

For in-house lawyers who are civil litigators but have no criminal experience, litigation-related pro bono opportunities in areas such as domestic violence, landlord-tenant, and bankruptcy are also available from a number of “Madden-approved” legal services organization.[2]

Other companies are utilizing a variety of ways to give back to the legal community. Among them is Street Law, an organization that seeks to educate students and communities about law, democracy, and human rights. The organization educates legal staff to become Street Law educators enabling them to teach students about the law. Many companies use this program as an opportunity to give back to their communities with a goal of strengthening the diversity pipeline in the legal profession, by hopefully motivating students to pursue a career in the legal profession.

In New Jersey, as lawyers there are many organizations seeking your assistance in addressing the legal issues facing low-income residents, who can’t afford to retain a lawyer. To name a few of the organizations providing legal assistance are Legal Services of Jersey, with county offices throughout the state, Essex County Volunteer Lawyers for Justice and Community of Hope-Hope for Veterans Program. 

Many other law departments in New Jersey are actively involved in pro bono service to the community, as illustrated by the ACCNJ pro bono awards given to both Merck and BASF last year.

ACCNJ has a pro bono committee that seeks to assist with enabling its members and member companies with doing pro bono legal assistance. We held a well-attended webinar in the spring that provided attendees with information on a number of local pro bono organizations, as well as an in-house perspective. In 2015, ACCNJ is partnering with Pro Bono Partnership to host a pro bono event, where our members will be able to provide counseling to nonprofit organizations in a number of different corporate legal fields ranging from employment law to intellectual property law. ACCNJ will be partnering with two of its law firm sponsors for this event. The event, or “Smorgasbono,” as PBP refers to it, is planned for March 10, 2015, please hold the date and look for details in January. ACCNJ hopes to also develop a pro bono event for its members with The Essex County Volunteer Lawyers for Justice. The ultimate goal of these events is to introduce our members and member companies to these organizations and hopefully invigorate volunteer efforts from the corporate sector.

In conclusion, corporate counsel can gain a great deal in “giving back” to their communities through participating in programs of this type.  Contact Nancy Eberhardt, program director, at Pro Bono Partnership (973-240-6955; neberhardt@probonopartner.org ) or Leslie Wolfson, executive director of ACCNJ (leslie.wolfson@acc-njcca.org ), for more information on what the in-house bar is doing, and what you can do to get started.

 

Sincerely,

Philip Crowley

 

 



[1] According to newly adopted N.J. Court Rule 1:21-12(a), which is effective January 1, 2015, and codifies longstanding practice:

Attorneys who certify that they have performed at least twenty-five (25) hours of voluntary (as distinct from court-appointed) qualifying pro bono service in New Jersey in the year ending on December 31 before the certification date shall be exempt from court-appointed pro bono service under Madden v. Delran, 126 N.J. 591 (1992), for the following year, provided that the certification states that the voluntary qualifying pro bono service was performed in conjunction with an entity certified under R. 1:21-11(b)(1) or (3) and identifies the entity with which the attorney collaborated.

Order of the N.J. Supreme Court (July 22, 2014), at 22, available at www.judiciary.state.nj.us/notices/2014/n140725a.pdf.

[2] The pro bono legal services organizations, such as Pro Bono Partnership, that have been approved for Madden exemption purposes are set forth at www.judiciary.state.nj.us/probono/pborgs.pdf.