Pro bono work and corporate citizenship are a major focus for individual attorneys as well as law firms. With attorneys responding to major social issues, such as immigrant detention, we were curious how law firms make their community and pro bono work a key part of their culture. We talked with the managing partners of large firms’ local offices to find out how their national scope fits in with their local community work.
We talked with Jared Briant, Denver office managing partner of Faegre Baker Daniels; Cole Finegan, regional managing partner of Hogan Lovells; and Tami Goodlette, managing partner of the Colorado offices of Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie.
LAW WEEK: Will you give me the rundown of how the pro bono and community work of Faegre Baker Daniels is structured here and what projects the local office is involved in?
JARED BRIANT: We’re a national firm, so the Colorado offices collectively are a big piece of that national firm. One of the things with pro bono and community service is that we actually have a pro bono manager resident here in Denver. She’s been with the firm for quite a while, and one of the things I appreciate about this is that having someone on the ground here helps us marry up interests of the lawyers with opportunities in the community.
We look at it nationally and holistically, but at the same time, we have very specific interests and programs that we run out of the Colorado offices, and I don’t know that we’d be able to do that if we didn’t have a manager dedicated to pro bono.
Some of the more prominent local initiatives we have in this space: We founded several clinics that we regularly run. One of those is a partnership with Metro Volunteer Lawyers. We run a post-decree clinic here in Denver where we assist low income parents with parenting time custody, support and those types of issues after the divorce proceedings.
More recently, we started up a guardianship clinic as well. And then we also founded a clinic with the Sister Carmen Community Center in Lafayette to help low-income parents and individuals within a range of issues.
I think it’s the result of being in this community for a long time, we’ve been able to identify what we see are needs in the community and not just do one-off type programs.
There are great opportunities for a whole bunch of reasons. We get to partner with important public agencies, and the clinics in particular are just a great opportunity to get lawyers of all experiences and all backgrounds and staff collaborating together on projects.
LAW WEEK: Can you talk a little bit about the community aspect within the firm that comes from that collaboration?
BRIANT: A commitment to pro bono is a core value of our firm and it’s an expectation we impose upon ourselves that we are good corporate citizens, both in the pro bono space as well as just community service space as well.
The primary benefit I think we see from that is we get to live and work in a better community. That’s the number one benefit, but in addition to that, I think it helps with recruiting. I think it helps with retention, it helps with overall job satisfaction. It allows people to follow their passion that might be outside of their regular practice area.
And that is something that’s recognized by the firm. Like a number of other firms, we have a policy where for associates, up to 100 hours or so is recognized as the same equivalent to billable hours. But being a litigator, myself, I know that if I take on a pro bono case, it doesn’t just magically stop at 100 hours. It’s a several-hundred hour commitment, and that is also something that’s recognized by the firm, just in the in the non-objective way, it’s like this is an important contribution that you’re making to our practice and to our community and so we hear all the time from lawyers that these are some of the most rewarding experiences to them.
So in terms of benefit, in addition to just being able to work in a community we feel like we’re helping, I think there’s absolutely a benefit to just firm culture, to recruiting to retention and all of those types of things.
LAW WEEK: Do you feel like there is an expectation for firms to be good corporate citizens or to be involved in the community as an organization?
BRIANT: Is there an external expectation? I don’t know. But again, it’s something that we put on ourselves. I view it more as an opportunity. We partner with our clients on [community projects] and so absolutely, it’s an opportunity to work with clients on important community initiatives.
These are furthering important partnerships with clients, and it’s the same with the courts, here. We’re a member of the pro bono program with the District of Colorado, and we regularly take referrals from the court. Honestly, when I was coming up as an associate, I took a prisoner pro bono case from the court, and that was just a great opportunity to get good experience early on taking depositions and things as a junior associate and working with the senior lawyer to learn the ropes. But then I’ve developed great relationships with the clerk and the court staff and ones I still maintain today dating back to that first pro bono case where you’re kind of cutting your teeth.
LAW WEEK: And what does the firm focus on for corporate responsibility? Has there been any change in expectations for law firms to be more involved in the community in a socially responsible way?
BRIANT: Historically, you think of pro bono first, right? It’s part of the oath that we take, we’re going to help the community, and we’re going to help the underserved get better access to justice. So that’s the starting point. If anything, I would say the community service piece of our program has grown more robust over the years, and the benefit of our community service efforts are that it opens up our ability to have everyone in the office participating, even the non-legal staff, because community service projects are ones where it allows us even greater collaboration with the non-lawyer staff.
LAW WEEK: You already mentioned the time commitment, and it’s a big undertaking to be able to take on a pro bono case. Can you tell me about how the firm supports attorneys in taking that on?
BRIANT: It’s certainly recognized and compensated. In terms of the support, I would say the starting point support is having the staff in place to identify opportunities and help engage lawyers in those opportunities. And again, having a pro bono manager here in Colorado has been critical for us. She’s a great interface with the courts and accepting referrals and was very involved in getting us going with the Douglas County school voucher case that just wrapped up last year. I think it was a six-year commitment. That was a 40-plus lawyer team on that case. Without the firm support and infrastructure, I don’t think it would be possible to put that kind of team together to do something like that.
Beyond that, I think our model for these types of projects is how do we get a junior lawyer and then find a more senior mentor to work with that junior lawyer on those cases. For the senior lawyer, it’s an opportunity to mentor and hone those skills for junior associates and an opportunity again, to get experience. It’s like a combination of finding opportunity, mentoring and gaining experience and then recognizing the contributions at the end. I think that process holistically is what leads to success.
LAW WEEK: How does the firm promote internally what it’s doing in that way?
BRIANT: I think it holds true for most of us on litigation that we like to celebrate great outcomes, and I think pro bono is really not treated any differently than the billable client work. If there’s a significant victory, it is promoted within the firm. It doesn’t matter if it’s a pro bono case or a non-pro-bono case. Those are celebrated and recognized the same.
And in particular, one thing I am in this office really focused on is not just recognizing the win, but recognizing the entire team. I think that goes a long way with our lawyers and our non-lawyer staff.
If you walk down the hall, you’ll see green ribbons outside of most people’s offices, that’s like the pro bono honor roll. So there’s actually a tangible thing.
LAW WEEK: How do you think all that work benefits the firm? Whether it’s in experience or satisfaction or anything else.
BRIANT: I think the benefit to us is that it’s like it’s an important core value, and as a result, you know it just helps further our culture. Pro bono is something that we instill in our lawyers from before day one.
We have a pretty robust summer program. If you sit down with any of the summer associates and a significant part of their workload is around pro bono projects, and we get them exposed to the culture of being involved in important pro bono work from the get go. So if that’s part of the culture on day one, several years later when they come up through the ranks, they are the senior lawyers that are providing that great mentoring to the new group of associates.
And I think if you ask the lawyers, you would hear the stories from them that this is some of the more rewarding aspects of their work, and some of their favorite experiences and probably some of the more challenging work they’ve had.
I know, for me when I was working on a prisoner pro bono case that was the first time I had been inside a federal prison and the challenges of for me was just learning how to communicate with a client where my ability to communicate with this client is restricted. How do I move this forward? How do I learn how to do depositions in this type of context, how do I work with the federal government on these things in an area that’s outside of [my practice]? These are core skills. It’s like learning how to talk with clients, learning how to deal with opposing counsel, learning how to interact with the courts and be an effective advocate, and I would say to a tee, the pro bono experiences have been integral to the training of our lawyers.
LAW WEEK: Is there anything coming up for you in this space that you hope to expand upon?
BRIANT: An area where we can probably do more is getting firms to collaborate together on things, like with some of these clinics, we staff them and share forces with other firms. And that’s actually a great opportunity, like how do we, as competitors in the marketplace, or neighbors in the marketplace, how can we find opportunities for us all to work together on something too? That’s something I think we’re on the lookout for as we go forward as well.