Pro Bono Mission Leverages Corporate Counsel For Nonprofit Service

Monday, August 1, 2011 - 00:00

The Editor interviews Richard S. Hobish , Executive Director, Pro Bono Partnership, Inc.

Editor: Please tell our readers about PBP's mission.

Hobish: Pro Bono Partnership provides business and transactional legal services to nonprofit organizations serving the disadvantaged and enhancing the quality of life in neighborhoods in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. We mobilize and support hundreds of lawyers from leading corporations and law firms who volunteer their legal expertise on behalf of our clients, enabling them to more effectively feed the hungry, house the homeless, promote the arts, protect the environment and provide essential programs to children, the elderly, immigrants, the disabled and the unemployed.

For 15 years, PBP has offered services to nonprofits primarily by organizing and supporting the pro bono efforts of in-house counsel. We also work closely with business attorneys at law firms. PBP was launched in 1997 as an initiative of the Westchester/Fairfield County Corporate Council Association. Several major corporations supported this initiative, with GE leading the charge. By 2000, our reputation had spread, and we were asked by several leading New Jersey companies to extend our services there. In 2003, we helped start a similar organization in Hartford, which later merged with the Partnership, and in 2005, we established the Pro Bono Partnership of Atlanta, a separate 501(c)(3) that operates independently under license from us.

Today, PBP assists nonprofits throughout the lower New York Hudson Valley, Connecticut and New Jersey. It has a staff of 15, including nine attorneys, and offices in White Plains, NY, Parsippany, NJ, and Hartford, CT.

Editor: Tell us more about your focus on in-house legal departments.

Hobish: Our board is composed of general counsel and direct reports from major companies who provide strong corporate support from the top down, promote the value of pro bono legal activities to their own legal departments, and encourage it in other corporate leaders and law firms.

Law firms have a culture of doing pro bono work, in part, as a vehicle to recruit and train young lawyers. However, similar incentives don't exist for most companies, where lawyers are generally seasoned attorneys. So, why do corporations get involved? They seek to further corporate charitable goals, provide professional enrichment for their lawyers, and strengthen community relations by contributing their lawyers' skills to organizations addressing community needs.

We have found that a "one-size-fits-all" approach to providing pro bono opportunities does not address the requirements of all corporate legal departments, however. Thus, we carefully consider a corporation's community relations and philanthropic goals and the expertise and interests of its lawyers to structure a pro bono program for each company that meets its particular needs.

Editor: What are the components of PBP's program?

Hobish: There are four main components. The primary component is direct legal advice for nonprofit clients. Our volunteer attorneys provide approximately 80 percent of this advice, and PBP staff attorneys provide the rest, while also supporting our volunteers on all projects. Second, PBP offers approximately 50 educational workshops and teleconferences each year, many presented by in-house attorneys. On our website, we also provide publications, many written by volunteers, on legal topics of particular relevance to our nonprofit clients. And, we issue newsletters and legal alerts on these and other topics. Third, we answer approximately 1,800 brief questions annually by phone and email through our Legal Resource Helpline. These calls are addressed by PBP attorneys, as well as volunteers. Fourth, we do public policy work on issues of importance to the nonprofit sector generally.

Editor: Tell us a bit more about your public policy work.

Hobish: I was recently asked by the New York State attorney general to serve on a committee that will make recommendations on how to reduce nonprofits' regulatory burdens and more effectively address other regulatory concerns. This committee is also charged with developing proposals to modernize the New York Not-for-Profit Corporation law, to strengthen nonprofit accountability and to propose measures to enhance board governance and promote board service.

Another example is our advocacy in New Jersey for a change in regulations to permit pro bono work by corporate attorneys not admitted to the bar in the state, enabling these lawyers to volunteer under the auspices of PBP and other providers without violating jurisdictional rules.

Editor: Talk about the time commitment involved for volunteers and the support PBP staff provides.

Hobish: We match the legal needs of our nonprofit clients with a volunteer attorney who has the required expertise. Many projects require only a few hours of time, while others, like mergers and some real estate matters, are substantial and require ongoing involvement over a period of months. These larger projects provide great opportunities to create teams of volunteers from corporations and law firms.

PBP actively supports volunteers' efforts well beyond matching attorneys with clients. We undertake the screening of clients and matters, assign a staff attorney to provide ongoing support and guidance for volunteers and clients, and track each matter to ensure a successful conclusion. We also provide forms and model documents, and staff attorneys are available for consultation at any time.

We also understand that, on occasion, circumstances may require a volunteer to give up a project. When that happens, the Partnership staff attorneys will take it back and either find another volunteer to take over or complete it themselves. Our goal is to make the experience as rewarding and enjoyable as possible for our volunteers.

Editor: How does PBP's staff support its clients?

Hobish: We are committed to providing nonprofits with a continuum of education and service to help them manage risk at all stages of the organizational life cycle, not just in moments of crisis. Often, nonprofits are so focused on providing programs and addressing funding needs that legal issues aren't a priority until problems reach crisis point. We put substantial effort into educating nonprofits to proactively adopt best practices in order to avoid risk and costly missteps, saving them money in the long run and positioning the organization to better serve its community.

New clients typically come to us with specific legal issues. While working with them, we make certain we identify any other legal issues they should address and discuss strategies to help get their legal house in order. We encourage all of our nonprofit clients to attend PBP workshops, utilize the articles and other legal resources on our website, and to call our resource helpline with questions.

Editor: What challenges has PBP faced in recent years?

Hobish: Our greatest challenge is addressing a seemingly unlimited need for legal services with finite resources. We are a lean and frugal organization that must accomplish much more than would ordinarily be expected of a staff our size. Our challenge is to raise sufficient resources to manage this process so our services to clients are not compromised. In order to succeed in this context, we must be careful to properly identify our priorities and retune them as necessary.

Editor: Do you have plans for further expansion?

Hobish: Not at this time. Although PBP is the only program that focuses primarily on recruiting in-house volunteers, there are many pro bono programs across the country doing transactional work for nonprofits. PBP has no interest in supplanting work that already is being done well by existing organizations. We currently have our hands full beyond all expectation; nevertheless, we'd certainly consider expansion if approached by corporate leaders in other geographic areas and if there is a quantifiable need for our services in those areas.

Editor: What effect has the recession had on the Partnership's clients?

Hobish: Nonprofits are struggling with diminished resources due to substantial cuts in government and private funding. The recession is not expected to "bottom out" for the nonprofit community any time in the foreseeable future. As a result, our clients are facing ongoing and often severe financial challenges, while also trying to provide for the increased number of needy individuals in our communities.

Not surprisingly, since 2007, we have experienced enormous growth in requests for services. The number of clients we assist annually has increased by nearly 100 percent to approximately 600; volunteers have increased by approximately 130 percent to more than 900, and matters addressed per year have grown by a similar percentage to nearly 1,300. While this growth is partly due to our expansion, outreach efforts and our reputation, it has been driven primarily by the needs of the nonprofit community since the onset of the recession.

For our part, we are geared up to assist with recession-related issues through our Crisis Management Initiative. This program provides advice to nonprofit boards and managers on fiduciary responsibilities, reorganization, employment issues, lease renegotiations and other expense-reduction measures - whatever is needed, including assistance with bankruptcy and dissolution. While we prefer advising nonprofits so that they can avoid crises, our clients appreciate that we are there to assist them when crises do arise.

Editor: Discuss your work in mergers and consolidations.

Hobish: Mergers are an excellent way for organizations to share fixed expenses and infrastructure with another nonprofit. We've helped many nonprofits with mergers, including several local chapters of the United Way and the Girl Scouts. When our clients seek help in this area, we often create teams of volunteers made up of in-house and law firm attorneys, enabling our clients to get the help they need while, for example, a law firm and its corporate client strengthen their relationship by doing "good" together.

Editor: What are PBP's new workshop models?

Hobish: While our in-person workshops enjoy great popularity, we recently started focusing more on teleconferences in order to reach more people from a broader geographic area. Teleconferences allow us to maintain our extensive range of educational offerings and increase our audience, but at a lower cost.

One of our most popular workshops addresses how to start a nonprofit and alternative and perhaps more appropriate ways to do so aside from incorporation/tax exemption. We currently offer this workshop monthly. However, we're about to launch a web-based, interactive version that will allow PBP to provide this information more broadly on demand without expending additional resources.

Another workshop variation is aimed at making it easy for attorneys to take an initial, limited foray into pro bono work. We use these attorneys to staff one-day "legal audit" workshops where we invite a number of nonprofits in for screening to identify their needs in a particular area, such as IP or employment law. These volunteer attorneys work with the nonprofits to identify specific issues that need to be addressed, and then they turn over the identified issues to PBP for assignment to other attorneys who are able to make a longer-term commitment.

Editor: Do you have any final thoughts?

Hobish: It is enormously rewarding to work with legal departments and law firms to help them create and fortify their commitment to pro bono service. PBP clients are immensely grateful for their assistance. And, our volunteers understand how important good legal advice is to the well-being of nonprofits that serve our communities.

We invite your readers from legal departments and law firms to visit our website at http://www.probonopartner.org to learn more about our program, clients and volunteer opportunities. Our invitation extends also to lawyers who may wish to access PBP services for nonprofit organizations. The links describing volunteer opportunities and for requesting legal assistance appear at the top of our home page.

Please email the interviewee at rhobish@probonopartner.org with questions about this interview.