Pro Bono: A Keystone Of Proskauer Firm Culture

Monday, August 1, 2011 - 01:00

The Editor interviews Scott Harshbarger , Senior Counsel and Chair of the Pro Bono Initiative Committee, Stacey O'Haire Fahey , Firmwide Pro Bono Counsel and Lynsey Ramos , Pro Bono Coordinator at Proskauer Rose LLP.

Editor: Scott, you served two terms as Massachusetts attorney general (1991-1999). How has this influenced your practice? How did you become interested in pro bono matters?

Harshbarger: With my background both in the public sector and in nonprofit positions, my position at the firm is a terrific opportunity to combine personal values and professional skills. Speaking for the firm, our belief is that we can do well by doing good. Given the real economic impact on public legal services at the local, state and national level today, we need law firms to seize the opportunity to provide meaningful legal counsel as a part of their mission and their professional responsibility.

Editor: Please tell us about some of Proskauer's pro bono activities. Do they tie in with other firm initiatives, such as diversity and mentoring programs?

Fahey: Yes. We work closely with our Diversity Committee and have been successful in developing projects that appeal to both initiatives. Recently, as part of the Women's Alliance, there was a mentoring session in which Scott discussed how pro bono offers both professional development opportunities and personal gratification for young lawyers.

Harshbarger: Mentoring is an opportunity for partners to offer supervision and guidance and for mentees to grow professionally and build a network of contacts in the legal community and elsewhere. Without pro bono work, associates might not have these opportunities to do substantive work early in their careers, and partners might not be able to engage as meaningfully with their mentees.

Ramos: For many of our associates, pro bono projects are their first opportunity to meet with a client on their own, to conduct a deposition or to take responsibility for a project.

Fahey: In terms of our pro bono activities, we've been very successful with cases involving the Criminal Justice Act, led primarily by Bill Komaroff in New York and Matt Queler in DC. At our Newark, NJ office, immigration lawyer Praveena Swanson is representing three unaccompanied minor siblings in an immigration matter referred to the office by KIND (Kids In Need of Defense). And in Los Angeles, a team of associates, two of whom were quite new to the firm, tackled a prisoner rights case referred to the firm by a United States district judge. The team built a strong case and gained significant litigation experience working on the matter.

Editor: Are mentoring benefits explained to summer associates?

Fahey: By all accounts, pro bono is a morale booster here at Proskauer. Our recent presentation to summer associates involved in-depth discussion of a wide variety of litigation and transactional pro bono matters. Attorneys shared stories and communicated how meaningful this work is to them.

Harshbarger: The presentations impressed everyone - summer associates and colleagues in attendance - with the energy and excitement with which the presenters talked about pro bono work as meaningful as well as forming the functional basis of building a legal practice. It was a great opportunity for our lawyers to offer "live" testimony that pro bono work can be a key component of professional development, both for individual lawyers and the firm as a whole. Summer associates recognized the valuable opportunity pro bono offers if they choose to work at the firm and how the opportunity enhances their loyalty to the firm.

Editor: How is your firm's pro bono initiative program distinguished from that of other organizations?

Fahey:Since we created our pro bono initiative six years ago, we've made great strides. We currently have more than 600 active pro bono matters across the firm; we've been successful in including our international offices in our program; and since 2006 our lawyers have logged more than 300,000 pro bono hours.We continue to introduce new opportunities both in the transactional and litigation areas and have created a few projects in which different offices across the firm work together. We, like many firms, now face the challenge of trying to keep the program vibrant in spite of the economic situation.

Editor: We understand you received the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts award recently.

Fahey: Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts is a wonderful organization that we work with closely. In addition to taking on many VLA cases, we host clinics where artists who qualify for VLA membership come to the firm and are paired with our Proskauer lawyers who assist them with legal issues such as intellectual property or contracts, among others. The clinics provide an opportunity for our lawyers to meet with struggling artists and to make a difference in their lives.

Editor: Formerly, it was the case that pro bono work was largely undertaken by litigators, but these days lawyers of many stripes can get into the action. Which practice areas are active in this area?

Harshbarger: The biggest challenge continues to be finding good corporate transactional projects, many of which come from nonprofits. Nonprofits pose many of the same corporate issues - board governance, internal investigations, employment issues, and issues regarding strategic business decisions of various types. We urge our corporate lawyers to participate in these nonprofit engagements for the many organizations that can't afford legal counsel. One example occupying our lawyers in Boston for a year and a half is the Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center, a major community health center in Dorchester/Roxbury which was in dire financial straits. Simply put, this is a major turnaround effort to rescue this vital community health service, not only financially but also in totally transforming its governance, policies, leadership and culture. Our corporate people, both associates and summer associates, have played a major role in reforming the governance practices of the organization, independently reviewing their practices, and helping them develop both business and legal strategies for becoming successful in connecting with major hospitals and other funding sources. In addition, this project has given us a platform to showcase our expertise and enhance our visibility in the healthcare arena in Boston.

Editor: Please mention your transactional work in other cities.

Fahey: Over the last couple of years Elaine Bucher in our Boca Raton office has been the major driving force in providing legal assistance to parents with special needs children and involving nearly every lawyer in our Boca office in helping dozens of parents in drafting what is called a special needs trust and other estate planning documents that will ensure children are protected as they age.

Our New Orleans office has been very successful on several pro bono matters, one of which was participating in the Goldman Sachs "Employment Law 101" clinic, where our lawyers provided advice to 30 small business entrepreneurs.

Ramos: You had asked earlier about what makes our program unique. One of the factors is the way we invite our attorneys to look for and approach us with projects that interest them. The project in Boca Raton actually came out of Elaine Bucher's own personal experience. She recognized how difficult it could be for a parent to get needed legal services, and she turned her idea into a project that now incorporates nearly everyone in that office.

Fahey: We also invite our lawyers when they join the firm to offer us pro bono opportunities that are interesting to them. We do a screening process, and if appropriate, we undertake these matters. We are now hoping to embrace more of our community service activities as well. We have had a 25-year relationship with Francis Lewis High School in Queens where we run a mentoring moot court program mostly overseen today by Evan Citron of our litigation department.

Editor: Many organizations make referrals to law firms with which they partner for pro bono work. Do you work with any of these?

Fahey: We work with a wide range of such referral organizations. In New York City we are fortunate to have very strong legal service providers: The Legal Aid Society, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, New York Legal Assistance Group, Legal Services NYC, Lawyers Alliance for New York and many others.

Harshbarger: We are blessed with a robust number of legal referral partnerships in the communities that we serve. Our challenge is to focus on how to build on those valuable relationships. The economic downturn has caused serious staffing issues for our community partners. We have seen that in Boston with Greater Boston Legal Services, as well as with other programs such as Health Law Advocates and the Civil Liberties Union. They are very important partners for any program seeking to deliver pro bono services in law firms.

Editor: How do you "recruit" attorneys to engage in pro bono programs? Do the attorneys come directly to you offering their services or is it a firm policy with respect to their participation in pro bono?

Fahey: There is a firm policy that every lawyer at Proskauer is encouraged to participate in our pro bono program. We make available potential pro bono projects at least on a weekly basis, and we encourage our lawyers to reach out to us. We have a designee in each of our departments in New York as well as in each of our other offices who serves in that liaison role. Our firm's Pro Bono Committee is meant to be the sounding board to make sure those opportunities are made available, are staffed appropriately and that there is adequate supervision. We do everything that we can to make pro bono easily accessible.

Harshbarger: But we have had to be more proactive over the last year because not only has the economic situation increased the amount of billable work for almost every firm, but there has been a negative impact on some of our community partners owing to the economic climate. We benefit from the fact that we have full-time pro bono staff that continually reminds us of our commitment. The Pro Bono Committee's job is to be an advocate in the various offices to encourage both partners and associates to participate in pro bono, consistent with our professional obligations and values.

Editor: Perhaps you could tell us about some of your newer initiatives - specifically your not-for-profit board service.

Fahey: This past winter we put together an internal document that highlighted all of the board service that our lawyers perform off-site. We are hoping to leverage that initiative by obtaining additional pro bono opportunities.

Harshbarger: It was an effort to recognize that large population of lawyers at the firm who provide services in their local communities - on nonprofit boards or in the public sector for instance. Recognizing those lawyers' service develops a more supportive environment for doing public service work - not only pro bono, but also community and other very important work serving the public interest.

Please email the interviewees at sharshbarger@proskauer.com, sfahey@proskauer.com and lramos@proskauer.comwith questions about this interview.