Chicago Corporate Counsel Take Up The Fight For Equal Access To Justice

Thursday, June 1, 2006 - 00:00

Corporate counsel throughout metropolitan Chicago are leaders and active participants in the efforts to improve access to justice in our community. While we could probably fill an entire magazine detailing all of these activities, for this article I will focus on some of the highlights I have witnessed firsthand in my role as President of The Chicago Bar Foundation (CBF).

The CBF, the charitable arm of the Chicago Bar Association (CBA), improves access to justice for less fortunate residents of the Chicago area by providing grants and other support to dozens of pro bono and legal aid organizations and working to address systemic barriers to equal access to justice. Corporate counsel are an integral part of these efforts, and below are just a few examples that illustrate the many ways they contribute to the cause.

Corporate Pro Bono. With the guidance of the Pro Bono Initiative (a project of the Public Interest Law Initiative in Chicago that soon will become a joint project with the CBF), a number of Chicago-area corporations have developed formal pro bono programs within their corporate legal departments in recent years. Two area corporations who have been leaders in formalizing their commitment to pro bono are McDonald's and Abbott Laboratories. McDonald's has developed a pro bono program that involves attorneys, paralegals and other members of their legal department in a wide array of pro bono activities. Abbott, also involved in a variety of pro bono projects, recently adopted a policy requiring all of its attorneys to provide at least ten hours of pro bono services each year.

Leadership in the Community. Abbott and McDonald's represent a significant and growing number of corporations who have made it a priority to be leaders in the larger effort to improve access to justice in our community. One of the more visible displays of that leadership is through participation in the CBA and CBF's Annual Pro Bono and Public Service Awards Luncheon, which has become a signature event in Chicago's legal community. Each year, a prominent corporate counsel or officer serves as co-chair of the luncheon. Some of the corporations that have been represented in this role are Abbott, Aon, AT&T Illinois, Baxter, Exelon, Northern Trust and Sara Lee.

Corporate counsel for many other major corporations in the area serve on the luncheon's steering committee each year. Three years ago, Exelon agreed to endow one of the prestigious awards presented at the luncheon, and that award is now known as the Exelon Outstanding Corporate Counsel Award. Thanks to Exelon's support, a corporate attorney who has made outstanding pro bono contributions is honored each year and the CBF is able to make a special grant in his or her honor to one of the many outstanding pro bono and legal aid organizations that the CBF supports.

Pro Bono Partnerships and Other Efforts to Boost Pro Bono Among Law Firms. Corporate counsel also have played an important role by encouraging Chicago-area law firms to become more involved in pro bono. Many corporate law departments partner with individual law firms on particular pro bono projects. As just one example, both Abbott and Baxter have partnered with Baker & McKenzie to staff a pro bono naturalization clinic with the Midwest Immigrant and Human Rights Center.

Some corporations also use their 'bully pulpit' with outside law firms to encourage the firms to make pro bono a great priority. For example, in its request for proposals for outside law firms, Exelon requires them to detail their pro bono policies and programs as part of their proposals.

Putting Their Money Where Their Mouth Is. In a reflection of their commitment to pro bono, an increasing number of area corporations provide generous financial support as part of their overall charitable giving to the CBF and many of the individual pro bono and legal aid organizations. This support not only helps provide the 'infrastructure' of pro bono opportunities for corporate attorneys, but also it enables local legal aid organizations to provide critical services that improve the community where the corporation's employees live and work.

Conclusion. These are just a few examples of the growing and critical role corporate counsel in the Chicago area play in the fight for equal access to justice. For more information about these efforts or how you can get involved, please contact CBF Executive Director Bob Glaves at (312) 554-1205 or at bglaves@chicagobar.org.