Thomson Reuters Foundation And DLA Piper - A Winning Team

Friday, April 20, 2012 - 12:24

The Editor interviews Monique Villa, Chief Executive Officer, Thomson Reuters Foundation and Heidi Newbigging, Solicitor in DLA Piper’s London office and manager of Pro Bono at DLA Piper LLP across eight offices in the UK.

Editor: Monique, please tell us about your role at TrustLaw and any major developments since we last spoke in November 2011. Has TrustLaw’s membership grown, and have you established any new programs?

Villa: Our membership is growing fast. Today, we have more than 700 members of which 230 are law firms spanning the globe. I just came back from a trip in Asia where I travelled to Indonesia, Singapore and China, and I believe the membership will grow considerably after that trip.

Editor: Heidi, please tell us about your background and experience. Tell our readers about your history with TrustLaw and how you led your team to win TrustLaw’s two inaugural awards in 2011, the Most Active Member Award and the Impact Award.

Newbigging: I’m the UK pro bono manager for DLA Piper, and I’m a qualified lawyer – one of their pro bono lawyers – as well. My responsibilities are to look after our pro bono program across our eight UK offices. We have been involved with TrustLaw as a firm globally since February 2011.

We were thrilled and delighted to have won the two awards last year. In terms of leading the team, the Impact Award was a collaboration with other law firms and involved our Bucharest office, which provided micro-finance advice for Romania. As for the Most Active Member Award, I led the team to a large degree on that because I was promoting TrustLaw to the whole of the global firm, saying to my colleagues that there were good opportunities to enable us to work locally and globally and that we should really get involved.

Editor: Please talk about the state of entrepreneurship globally and within Europe and how TrustLaw is encouraging that.

Villa: Following the economic crisis, we are now seeing in Europe a withdrawal of the state in many fields. Countries are now cutting back on their social services, and this has resulted in social enterprises slowly filling this gap left by the state. This confirms the idea that we had from the start, that such organizations have the potential to address many of the world’s humanitarian, environmental and social problems. However, their effectiveness is often affected by their inability to easily access legal resources. When we created TrustLaw, the idea was to find the best lawyers to work for free for social entrepreneurs who then would use their resources elsewhere. In 2011, law firms and corporations have spent some $11 million in free hours through TrustLaw. This money would otherwise have been spent by NGOs and social enterprises on legal fees, but instead they could use the money for their mission. We are now developing new programs to help social entrepreneurs deal with regulatory framework and legal issues that affect them, such as employment and taxes.

Our goal is to create a guide to help social enterprises set up their business and support the growing field of social entrepreneurship in Asia, Europe and the rest of the world. I just came back from China where social enterprise is burgeoning.

Editor: Heidi, please talk about DLA Piper’s history with and ongoing commitment to TrustLaw’s programs. Do you share this commitment with your corporate clients?

Newbigging: To give you some context, DLA Piper last year globally gave 193,000 hours of pro bono work, worth $108 million. Being awarded the Most Active Member Award was amazing, but it was also part of our strategy. We were possibly the largest provider of pro bono services during the past year, but certainly in the UK we’re still building our programs because the need for free legal advice continues, and we feel pro bono work is part of being a DLA Piper lawyer. Organizations like TrustLaw are the foundation of our program, giving our lawyers opportunities to work on both small and significant pro bono projects. We worked on a TrustLaw project recently in the UK with one of our corporate clients, and it was a perfect collaboration, involving their commercial and one of our specialist areas, so we were able to work with them easily. They are also TrustLaw members.

Editor: Please share with our readers some of your other collaborative projects, including your legal advice clinics.

Newbigging: We have a wide variety of projects that we run. We do the very typical legal advice clinics, but we also have a global nonprofit affiliate, New Perimeter, which delivers our global pro bono projects by providing opportunities for lawyers on the ground to work with NGOs. Some examples would be working with our clients, GE and Barclay’s, in Tanzania, where in collaboration with the university we delivered a more practical legal education program for their undergraduates than what they offered. We’ve also been working with Verizon and Moscow State University to deliver a legal ethics course as this becomes a focus area in Russia.

In the U.S. some of our collaborative work is extensive, and a good example would be our work there with Verizon. About 200 Verizon lawyers worked with our lawyers in assisting veterans applying for combat-related special compensation. We’ve also run a program called Clinics in a Box, where we assist nonprofit organizations, and we’ve worked with Verizon on removing restrictions on pro bono work for corporate lawyers in the state of Virginia. The joy of these collaborations is that two organizations are working together with the same aim.

Editor: Please talk about TrustLaw’s website content partners.

Villa: On our public website, www.trust.org, we cover two main issues: anti-corruption and women’s rights. We have as many good content partners as we can get, and many organizations around the world share their content with us. We are fast becoming the information hub for the latest news and information on these two major issues.

Editor: You’ve already presented to our readers the importance of the media as a critical tool for improving global social conditions – particularly during times of crisis. Can you tell us about recent TrustLaw efforts in this area?

Villa: Some months ago, we conducted a poll asking specialists on the ground and academics – in total 215 people – to identify the most dangerous countries for women. The poll ranked Afghanistan number one, followed by Congo  number two, Pakistan, number three, India, number four  and Somalia, number five. Our poll has had a significant and long-lasting impact in the press and the media around the world.

The debate turned essentially around India, which is the biggest democracy in the world but is the fourth worst country in which to be a woman. One of the reasons why India came in fourth is that the press is very open and forces the government to provide transparency. It is the home office minister of India who says that 100 million people are trafficked, and the data on child marriage or female feticide also exists – whereas in many other countries, such information is not out in the open.

Since we published this poll in June 2011, there is not one week where a newspaper or magazine in India doesn’t call for change. So media can have a real impact.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation was also in Haiti immediately after the earthquake to send vital information to the population in creole, and we came back many times to cover the drama.

Then we helped a grassroots organization called MADRE fighting rape against girls and women. We organized a TrustLaw program asking lawyers to research how six countries had put an end to impunity regarding rape, both in legislation and in best practices. Four law firms, including DLA Piper, worked for MADRE and produced a legal research report that we then printed and published through our facilities in Eagan, Minnesota. We then distributed this in Haiti to the different authorities and the presidency as well as the grassroots organizations. Last month, I received a letter from the prime minister of Haiti, thanking us for putting these law firms together to produce this very authoritative paper and assuring us that it would be used in the process of drafting a new law against rape. This is very positive.

The last thing I will mention is Trust Women. In December in London, we will host our first conference on women’s rights with the International Herald Tribune. It aims to drive innovation and partnerships by connecting legal expertise with the financial, technological and educational resources that enable women to exercise their rights. It will be a conference turned to action, and hopefully it will have a large impact.

Editor: Heidi and Monique, what personal satisfaction do you and your organizations derive from your investment in these extremely worthwhile projects? What tools do you use to measure the total impact of your firm’s services?

Newbigging: I was a fee-earning lawyer, and I moved into pro bono and CR (corporate responsibility) 11 years ago. One of my reasons is the personal satisfaction of seeing the impact that we can have, whether that is just reviewing a lease for a tiny charity or being involved in something like MADRE. I know the lawyers who have been involved feel that. But we do realize that we have to measure the impact of our firm’s services, so we now have every pro bono case on our financial system, which means that all of our lawyers get full fee credit for the work they do. We can literally hit a button and produce a report just as if it was for a fee-paying client, saying how many hours we’ve given and the value of that time. We think it’s important to see whether we are making an impact and whether we’re doing it in the best way possible.

Villa: In terms of personal satisfaction, it’s wonderful to drive the Thomson Reuters Foundation after having been a journalist for 20 years, then in management of Agence France-Presse and at Reuters Media for another ten years.

My experiences both as a journalist and as a business woman have come together at the Foundation, so it’s extremely fulfilling. I can now put all the capacities I have acquired in my professional life at the service of people who really need help. At the Foundation, we have TrustLaw and we also have AlertNet, which is the first humanitarian website in the world. We also train journalists and give them skills to cover everything from an election, to reporting on business, HIV-Aids or corruption in their country.

The mission is to spread the best values of journalism, use information as a form of aid and give legal support to social enterprise and NGOs for them to be the best at what they do. All this comes together on www.trust.org, the portal of the Foundation.

We have very strict metrics at the Foundation that were drafted outside, and all the teams check their progress on it every few months.

As for the Thomson Reuters company, I think it has been very satisfied to see that the Thomson Reuters Foundation is now completely aligned with what the company does in its main businesses.

 

Please email the interviewees at monique.villa@thomsonreuters.com and heidi.newbigging@dlapiper.com with questions about this interview.