TrustLaw Fosters Pro Bono, Women’s Rights And Global Education

Friday, November 11, 2011 - 08:12

The Editor Interviews Monique Villa, Chief Executive Officer, Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Editor: Please tell us why Thomson Reuters set up TrustLaw and about its mission.

Villa: Launched in July, 2010, TrustLaw is the newest among many programs established by Thomson Reuters Foundation. Its mission is to spread the practice of pro bono beyond the five countries in which it already is well practiced, namely the U.S., the UK, Australia, Canada and South Africa. In the rest of the world, pro bono practice is either very ad hoc or nonexistent, and it is altogether forbidden in places like Brazil. So, we created a marketplace called TrustLaw Connect, which allows qualified non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and social entrepreneurs to access lawyers free of charge. We now cover 140 countries, and in 15 months we have grown from 180 members to almost 600 members, of which 200 are law firms or general counsels of large corporations. For instance, a lawyer with GE in Poland worked on one of our programs, and another with Goldman Sachs in London worked on a different program. We really have an impressive roster of attorneys.

Editor: Do the lawyers receive credit with their law firms as though they were representing a client?

Villa: Absolutely. Our program is fully compatible with law firm pro bono program requirements.

Editor: Please tell us about your own background.

Villa: I worked as a journalist for 20 years for Agence France Presse (AFP) in France, Italy and the United Kingdom and then became AFP’s director of strategy and sales. I moved to Reuters in 2000 and served as the managing director of Reuters Media – the company’s news agency segment. Three years ago, when Thomson acquired Reuters and formed Thomson Reuters, I was asked to transform the Reuters Foundation into a much bigger Thomson Reuters Foundation (the Foundation), and TrustLaw is part of this transformation.

Editor: What is the Foundation’s mission?

Villa: Thomson Reuters is a company that specializes in finding, verifying and disseminating information, and the Foundation leverages those skills in a charitable way. The Foundation believes that information, in itself, is a form of aid, as valuable as money, water, food or shelter. When people have the right information at the right time, they have the power to transform their lives and, often, their communities and countries. Through our web portal, http://www.trust.org, our 20-plus journalists provide news and information to the humanitarian aid community through Alertnet. We provide in-depth coverage of crisis situations, women’s rights and anti-corruption. Our team at TrustMedia also trains hundreds of journalists each year around the world to cover the most pressing stories in their countries.

The importance of this mission becomes clear when you imagine the helplessness of even the most competent person in the wake of a disaster situation, such as an earthquake – simply because they have no access to information. Without information, you can have been the most brilliant banker or lawyer the day before, but if you no longer know where to find essential services, such as distribution channels for food and water or access to a list of missing people, you feel totally lost. The 2010 earthquake in Haiti, for instance, triggered our Emergency Information Service, and we immediately sent some of the Foundation’s 20 journalists to Haiti. Their task was to gather information from Doctors Without Borders, the UN and frontline aid workers, check this information and then distribute it to the local population in its native Creole language.

The Foundation’s second mission is to facilitate free legal support for those in need, to spread the practice of pro bono globally and to strengthen the rule of law. By working with our Westlaw business, the Foundation can provide additional legal information and resources through the TrustLaw platform and can also disseminate our reports and best practices to a wider audience.

Editor: Describe the contents of your website.

Villa: TrustLaw’s website contains vital information regarding important issues, such as anti-corruption and women’s rights. Anti-corruption initiatives, for example, are creating more transparency in the world, and TrustLaw has a number of content partners, such as Transparency International and Revenue Watch, that place their content on TrustLaw’s website. Such partnerships supplement both the work of our own journalists, who investigate anti-corruption issues globally, and our other services, such as the Reuters news feed.

The website offers a database of laws and best practices with international conventions and of case studies on pro bono. The latter provide a good example of what has been done successfully and what can be reproduced in other countries.

The website also provides extensive coverage of women’s rights, an issue the Foundation chose because we are convinced that when woman are empowered to work, children are better fed and better educated. Women spend 80 percent of their salary on the family, whereas men spend 35 percent. Helping women know and defend their rights – especially in developing countries – helps us tackle the very root of poverty.

Our goal is to have a database on women’s rights in every country. The American Bar Association is graciously building this database and making it available to a larger audience on the TrustLaw website.

Editor: Who is served by the information on your website, and how can NGOs and social entrepreneurs access your service?

Villa: TrustLaw Connect is a marketplace for connecting corporate counsel and firm lawyers with social entrepreneurs and NGOs. Membership is free but required for all participants, and TrustLaw conducts a rigorous verification and selection process on all parties. Thomson Reuters is a global company, with bureaus in every country, so we have excellent resources for checking out an NGO or a lawyer before allowing participation in TrustLaw. In each country, we know the reputable law firms, and we usually select our attorneys from this trusted source. We vet the NGOs ourselves and work with our partners at the Skoll Foundation, Ashoka, Grameen Foundation, Schwab Foundation, and elsewhere to vet social entrepreneurs for TrustLaw membership.

Additionally, TrustLaw’s website is accessible globally to anyone who is interested in anti-corruption or women’s rights issues. We report extensively, for example, on child marriage within specific countries, and in June 2011, we launched the website on women’s rights – pursuant to a poll we organized among 213 global gender experts, including academics and those working on the front line. We asked them to identify the five most dangerous countries for women, using six criteria: health threats, sexual violence, non-sexual violence, cultural or religious factors, lack of access to resources and trafficking.

Afghanistan was found to be the worst country, and Congo placed second – no surprise when you consider that a rape occurs every ten minutes in Congo, and rapists act with total impunity. We all know that third-place Pakistan is a difficult country for women, but, surprisingly, India placed ahead of Somalia at number four. This result caught the attention of CNN, BBC and all the newspapers because India is the world’s biggest democracy, and its media is very open and active. Trafficking and child marriage, however, remain major problems in India. Every year, 100 million people – most of them women and girls – are trafficked into slavery, and there is a very high rate of female feticide. All of these factors resulted in India’s placement at number four. A significant outcome was that the poll opened a substantial, three-month public discussion in India, with almost daily newspaper or magazine coverage of the female issues. So we at least had an impact in the broadest sense, which is speaking of the issues openly.

For those interested in the legal services, TrustLaw’s website enables connections between NGOs and social entrepreneurs who need legal representation and qualified lawyers who are looking for pro bono work. TrustLaw can quickly organize programs, for example, that provide access to high-impact pro bono cases for corporate counsel who otherwise wouldn’t know where to find such work or have the ability to vet potential recipients.

For instance, we received a request from Adie – the largest microfinance organization in Europe – to research EU legislation that pertains to entrepreneur status. The idea was to simplify access to the status of self-entrepreneur that allows an employed person to easily qualify for micro loans and benefit from tax breaks that would allow them to run a very small business for three years. This program was proposed to our lawyer members in November 2010, and, immediately, the U.S. firms Latham & Watkins and Orrick both wanted to participate. Ultimately, they worked with 17 other law firms, including the General Electric lawyer in Poland I mentioned above, to conduct the research and publish a paper that Adie could bring to the European Commission in Brussels. Next December, Commissioner Michel Barnier will host a forum in Brussels around this issue and seek to change the legislation on microfinance in the European Union. TrustLaw’s programs can therefore have a real impact in many countries.

Naturally, attorneys from both law firms and corporations are very interested to work on such projects, and we have many more. For instance, Transparency International (TI) requested lawyers from every country in which they do their four-year review on the UN Convention against Corruption. These reviews form the basis for TI’s index. We have already matched them with more than 20 lawyers in 20 different countries with the goal of covering 100 countries, so many lawyers will be called to work on this project. Mayer Brown coordinates the effort for TrustLaw.

We are also working with the International Lesbian, Gay and Transgender Association (ILGA) to address the numerous legal issues faced by the transgender community. ILGA has asked us to research and create a database of the rights of transgender people in a hundred countries. At first, it was difficult to find lawyers for this project, as it is very sensitive, but finally the International Senior Lawyers Organisation has taken the leadership on this huge program.

We also have a program in Haiti that was requested by a grassroots organization called MADRE to do a comparative research in six countries aimed at putting a stop to the impunity on rape. Thanks to our lawyers and the coordination efforts of Morrison Foerster, this project is almost finished, and it has been transferred over to the UN. We hope it will help establish the rule of law in Haiti, at least on this very serious issue.

Editor: Who are the members of TrustLaw?

Villa: Our current membership comprises 200 law firms and corporations on the lawyers’ side, and on the beneficiary side, we have 400 social entrepreneurs and NGOs. TrustLaw is growing so fast that we will very soon get to the 1,000 mark.

Editor: Do you limit the number?

Villa: No, because it just shows that there is a huge need around the world to legally support organizations that are working for the public good. So we will go on growing. It is, in my view, very good to have a problem of growth in that field rather than one of disinterest.

Editor: How are law firms and corporate counsel screened prior to their acceptance as team members?

Villa: Interested parties can visit the website and register to be considered for membership, which involves answering a number of questions. Our team reviews and checks the responses and then speaks directly to those who make this cut. Some candidates are easy to approve because they belong to organizations with which we are familiar; others take a bit more time, but the process is still very easy.

Editor: How can corporate counsel make a difference in spreading word about your pro bono services?

Villa: They can spread the word about TrustLaw’s unique service and substantial projects to corporations and law firms to increase our roster of service providers and to NGOs and the social entrepreneurs so they can benefit from this resource. Corporate counsel also can suggest us as an information resource for pro bono opportunities and for vital updates on anti-corruption and women’s rights.

Editor: How is TrustLaw funded? Do you accept outside donations?

Villa: While our core funding comes from Thomson Reuters, we are a separate 501(c)(3) charity that receives donations, which we are looking to boost in the UK and in the U.S.

Editor: How may our readers learn more about your accomplishments?

Villa: I invite your readers to visit http://www.trust.org to learn about TrustLaw and our other programs, such as AlertNet, the humanitarian news service that receives more visitors than UN ReliefWeb, and TrustMedia, which is the program to train journalists around the world.

Please email the interviewee at monique.villa@thomsonreuters.com with questions about this interview.