Corporate Pro Bono Reaches Global Proportions

Monday, August 1, 2011 - 01:00

The Editor interviews Deirdre Stanley , Executive Vice President and General Counsel, Thomson Reuters.

Editor: Congratulations on being honored at the Lawyers Alliance for New York 2011 Business Law & Leadership Gala, celebrating pro bono service for New York City nonprofit organizations. Please tell our readers about your background and what it means to receive this recognition.

Stanley: The Lawyers Alliance is a great organization, and I am deeply honored, both as an individual attorney committed to pro bono work and in my capacity at Thomson Reuters. I've been the general counsel at Thomson Reuters since it was created in 2008 as a result of an acquisition of Reuters Group PLC by the Thomson Corporation, where I served as the general counsel since 2002. I began my practicing career at a law firm in New York and spent a few years in the firm's London office before moving to the in-house side. Throughout this entire time I have remained committed to, and a strong supporter of, pro bono legal work.

Thomson Reuters is strongly committed to supporting the communities in which we live and work and do business. One of the initiatives I am most proud of is a Thomson Reuters Foundation program called TrustLaw, which is a global hub for free legal assistance, news and information. TrustLaw matches lawyers who want to do pro bono work on a global scale with organizations that we have pre-qualified for their legitimacy and their need. Attorneys looking to work globally in the pro bono arena can find opportunities to work with a legitimate client organization after it has been properly screened.

The Lawyers Alliance has a wonderful program that supports pro bono activities, and we are proud to receive this honor recognizing our corporate commitment in developing a novel initiative like TrustLaw.

Editor: Please tell us more about the TrustLaw program.

Stanley: For Thomson Reuters, the nature of our business as a leading provider of news and information allows us to facilitate positive change in the world.The Thomson Reuters Foundation serves as our charitable arm in providing grant funds and important programs dedicated to empowering people in need with trusted information and professional expertise. While these efforts have a strong focus on journalism, we developed TrustLaw to reach into the legal community generally.

Through Westlaw and our other legal products and services, Thomson Reuters has relationships with almost every major law firm and most lawyers around the world. We serve as a trusted source for information on all areas of legal practice, including global anticorruption laws and governance. We understand that pro bono work enables lawyers to pursue an individual and collective social commitment; thus, we launched TrustLaw in July 2010 through our foundation to leverage our business strengths and provide a hub for free legal assistance and information on good governance and women's rights.

TrustLaw's mission is to foster global pro bono work by connecting those who need legal assistance with attorneys willing to offer free services and also provide news and information on good governance and anticorruption issues. We are inherently equipped - by virtue of what we do and our global footprint - to pre-screen locations and individuals in need. While not everyone, for example, can spend months in Tanzania building a school, attorneys want to be helpful outside of their own communities, and TrustLaw facilitates this process.

Editor: It sounds like a perfect match of necessary resources and talent for a very effective program.

Stanley: That's right, and part of the process is deciding what programs and community services we want to support. There is plenty of good work to be done in the world and there are all kinds of needs, so we created a new approach that is organically based on our experience and relationships.

TrustLaw followed a tradition of supporting journalists throughout the world. The Thomson Reuters Foundation maintains training programs for journalists, particularly in developing countries that may lack qualified universities and programs. There is a great need to report news beyond the immediate originating communities, and because of our experience as the world's largest international multimedia news agency, we have journalists in all of these regions, the capacity to publish and the resources to teach local journalists to write their own stories.

Editor: How do pro bono initiatives tie in with the overall objectives at Thomson Reuters? What are some of the ancillary benefits of a pro bono program in building goodwill for the company?

Stanley: At Thomson Reuters, we have a responsibility to do business in ways that respect, protect and benefit our customers, our employees and our communities. Sharing our skills and resources with the communities where we operate is a key element of our corporate responsibility. Building strong collaborative relationships while enhancing our own understanding of the people and places we serve helps create a sustainable approach to community support.

Pro bono occupies a very special place in the legal community, and most lawyers, in spite of time constraints, feel a sense of duty to volunteer in some way throughout their career. Knowing that Thomson Reuters supports their volunteerism and rises to challenges in the legal arena speaks to the values we share with our customers. This is the primary benefit.

Pro bono work is however difficult for in-house departments for a variety of reasons. As a general matter, in-house departments are very different from outside law firms, insofar as we are viewed as cost centers even if we're delivering a value. While there is no shortage of work in-house, there is occasional overcapacity in the outside legal environment that presents opportunities for associates to get involved in pro bono work which, in turn, can develop opportunities for professional and firm development. This dynamic isn't really translatable for in-house departments because we are constantly managing all kinds of developments - not just legal - and are usually triaging to determine the company's areas of greatest risk and what we need to focus on right now.

Pro bono work for in-house lawyers is a heroic exercise because their other work doesn't go away. Volunteering is always an additional commitment. It can have the benefit of developing legal skills but, unlike law firms, in-house departments don't have the same challenges, for example, generating client contact. We have client contact every day; thus we enjoy different ancillary benefits through initiatives like the Lawyers Alliance, such as legal staff engagement with senior management and first-hand experience working with people who are developing programs to assess and develop strategies around managing corporate risk.

Editor: Does a corporate culture of community service benefit companies and their employees internally? Does Thomson Reuters encourage non-legal employee participation in volunteerism?

Stanley: Absolutely, volunteerism is huge for us. We have the Thomson Reuters Foundation for targeted programs, while the company's global relationships allow us to do other projects on a grand scale. We have numerous community volunteer programs that are supported at all levels of the organization and are very much organized from the ground up - everything from employees raising money to participate in a charity run/walk to people volunteering for Habitat for Humanity.

These are terrific activities, not just for employee engagement and team and relationship building, but community service is also an effective brand-building and recruitment exercise. In addition, our Community Champion Awards program recognizes and rewards our employees' outstanding community service around the world. In 2011 through this program we will be awarding 45 charities that our employees support, a total of $150,000 in grants. This will bring our total donations made through this program to $1 million. We also provide a program, Dollars for Doers, to reward their volunteer time with a $1,000 grant.

As a result, we are identified as a desirable place to work, and we gain visibility with the legislators - all of which helps with building the Thomson Reuters brand in our communities. It's a great benefit for everyone.

Editor: Please tell us about the Thomson Reuters legal partnership with the Pro Bono Institute and other nonprofit organizations.

Stanley: We encourage all corporations to participate in the Pro Bono Institute's corporate challenge, in which an in-house legal department makes a commitment that at least half of the department's staff will do some pro bono work over the course of a year.

What makes our participation unique is that we have a global legal department, with over 90 lawyers operating in 11 countries. While pro bono is well established in the U.S. legal market, it's a relatively new idea for other countries; therefore, the Thomson Reuters participation in this program enables our attorneys to talk about a strong U.S. tradition and generate interest in global participation. In London, for example, I am not aware of any organization analogous to the Lawyers Alliance or Pro Bono Institute, so it takes more effort to find volunteer work. Being a global department enables us to start a dialogue with overseas colleagues and drive engagement in worldwide initiatives.

Editor: Please discuss the Legal Associate Program you established at Thomson Reuters.

Stanley: The Legal Associate Program was our in-house department's response to recession-driven concerns in the legal community. The program started in New York and then expanded globally. In 2008, the major New York law firms either required or asked incoming associates to voluntarily defer active engagement for one year in exchange for a stipend, often 50 percent of their salary. Thus, there were many law school graduates, most with substantial debt, facing a challenging market and unable to start their careers.

These young attorneys did not have the same opportunities to jump into the challenging, fast-paced environments that prepared my peers and me for the positions we now hold. Since corporate legal departments tend to hire experienced attorneys from law firms, rather than law school graduates, these young people were at a true disadvantage - ready and able to start their careers but on hold at their firms with no opportunity to start building professional experience.

The Legal Associate Program is a seven-month program, currently with 11 associates in their deferred year. Each associate is paired with a member of our legal council and a staff-level mentor. Our curriculum is unique in its expansiveness, for example, one associate is working with senior securities lawyers learning how to draft disclosure documents, but further paired with someone from investor relations to discuss broader issues. Another example involves covering how to negotiate complex commercial agreements. Our legal staff will partner with a sales representative who can further discuss relevant factors, such as the pressure of bringing sales in the door.

The Legal Associate Program consists of a curriculum that goes beyond offering short-term work and focuses on providing experiences that help accelerate the associates' careers. When they return to their law firms, they are less reliant on seeking help from other lawyers and more valuable to the partners because they've had direct client experience and gained practical insight into complex business operations. We feel the program gives our associates a real competitive advantage.

We received excellent feedback from law firms about last year's entire class of ten associates, specifically that they are performing at higher levels because they understand the big picture of what clients are trying to achieve and they know what questions to ask. We're very proud of the program.

Editor: Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?

Stanley:I strongly encourage your readers to become involved in pro bono programs, and they can learn more about these organizations at The Lawyers Alliance, and TrustLaw