Creating a Pro Bono Smorgasbord: BNY Mellon’s program tries to give lawyers choices that make it easy to participate

Wednesday, October 11, 2017 - 14:29

Arunas Gudaitis and Michael Povman are co-chairs of a pro bono program that is still quite new and feeling its way. It was started at BNY Mellon about five years ago, and its pro bono committee is working hard to put systems in place to manage the organizational challenges. They’re also working to build enthusiasm among the company’s 270 lawyers. It’s going well, the co-chairs say. The interview has been edited for style and length.

When and why did you decide to get involved in pro bono?

Michael Povman: I first started as a young associate at Proskauer, my old law firm. I was actually a litigation associate at the time, and I did a federal civil rights case that we actually took to trial. I was representing a group of Muslim prisoners who claimed that they were deprived of certain accommodations they needed to celebrate Ramadan. That was a really good experience for a young lawyer at a large law firm, where you typically wouldn't get trial experience. In addition, I really felt like I was doing a service by helping a group of people who otherwise would not have been able to get representation. After the trial, which by the way we lost, the judge, Michael Mukasey [who later was the U.S. attorney general], wrote a very nice letter to the senior partners at the firm, complimenting the work that we did and encouraging us to continue our pro bono service. And the clients were all just so appreciative of the work that we were doing to try to help – that makes you feel good inside, too.

Arunas Gudaitis: My first experience was as an associate at Sullivan & Cromwell. I worked on matters assisting nonprofit organizations, helping them get 501(c)(3) designation and setting up charters, by-laws, that sort of thing. I did similar projects in my next job. It really wasn't until I got to BNY Mellon and became involved with the pro bono committee here that I got involved with individuals who were directly in need of assistance. That has had a much bigger impact on me. The gratitude of those clients, when you are able to help them, is one of the things that really is a driver for me.

When did you decide you wanted to deepen and expand your involvement?

Gudaitis: My pro bono career is not that long. It really was after I joined the company in 2013. The pro bono program was very new at that time. I think it had been formed just the prior year, and there was a lot of excitement. I frankly didn't expect when I volunteered to join the committee that I would eventually get as involved with it as I have. It is one of those things you do that is very different from your day-to-day work, and uniquely gratifying in a lot of ways. Once I got involved, I continued to work and grow in it to the point that I consider pro bono to be part of my legal practice now.

Povman: I also started getting more deeply involved after I came to BNY Mellon. Though I've been here for many years, we didn't have a formal pro bono program until recently. I was asked to serve as the New York regional chair. I thought that I had some unique skills, not just in terms of legal work but also organizational skills that I could help put to good use. That's how I got involved, and I just got drawn into it and really just started spending a lot more time, trying to help organize projects.

Are there benefits for your law department as a whole?

Gudaitis: Before I get to benefits, I do think that as attorneys, we are uniquely privileged members of a guild and have the right and the ability to do things that other members of society, who don't carry the license that we do, don’t have. My belief is that this imposes a certain responsibility on us as a profession, to use those skills to benefit those who are otherwise underserved.

As for how it benefits the legal department, one of the things that pro bono work requires is for lawyers to think out of the box. Lawyers, particularly in a corporate legal department, tend to be very highly specialized. In this company, many of the lawyers are deep subject matter experts on particular products, particular lines of business, particular regulatory areas. What they have not needed to do, or had an opportunity to do, is try to counsel somebody who's landlord kicked them out of their home that morning. In order to be able to do that, the attorney will need to get a certain amount of training in a different area. They'll also need to develop people skills that are a little different than what they normally need. That leads to the strengthening of the legal muscle, if you will. People are put into very real, very visceral scenarios that their normal job typically doesn't put them in. It may help improve their ability the next time they're giving a presentation or solving a problem. There's all kinds of benefits in terms of the skills. But that's not the reason that we do it. The reason that we do it is because it's the right thing to do.

Povman: I think doing pro bono work gives people a sense of perspective. You're working in a large corporate legal department, and you're dealing with business issues that are important to your client and important to you because you're employed by the company. But when you go out there and start working with someone who might be evicted or deported, that puts things into perspective for you. It makes you a better lawyer because you do realize that there are more important things in life than this particular business deal that you're doing. It actually helps you do better work on that deal because you can put it in perspective and think about it in the scheme of things generally.

The other point that I would make is that the projects that we try to facilitate encourage collaboration and comradery between members of the department. The clinics get people together who normally wouldn't interact with each other. We're also a large legal department, and we've grown a lot over a very short period of time. I think that it gives people an opportunity to mix and mingle, if nothing else, with their colleagues and share some experience, and I think that's good for the department as a whole.

Gudaitis: I would echo that. There’s no doubt that a good part of what was behind my joining BNY Mellon’s pro bono committee was getting to know more people at my new company. It’s great bonding. There's team building that happens from working on projects together and with our partners among the legal services organizations and the law firms.

Talk a little bit about the partnerships on these projects. And tell us about some of the projects you're particularly proud of.

Povman: The partnerships are an important part of the program, both with the law firms and the legal services organizations. It's important for us to foster relationships we have with some of our key law firms. When we are working on more complex projects that might take some time, if we have an internal lawyer partnered with a lawyer from a law firm, it takes the pressure off of both of them. It allows both of them to do pro bono, while not feeling like they're necessarily going to miss opportunities or obligations for their paid work.

The project that I'm most close to personally, because I helped bring it into the company, is the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund name-change project that we're doing with Reed Smith, where we assist transgender people to get legal name changes in New York. If you're a transgender person, you may face obstacles because your legal name doesn't match your gender identity. A legal name change is a big step. If you want to apply for a job or get a driver’s license, it really helps to have your name match your gender identity. Otherwise that mismatch can cause problems for you, just in terms of dealing with potential employers and government agencies and the like. And also, of course, just for your own sense of identity.

For a lawyer, frankly they're not all that difficult to do. It's just some paperwork that you need to fill out and a court appearance. If you're a transgender person with no legal experience, however, it can be a daunting process. It can be difficult and scary.

How has your company's pro bono program changed over the last five years?

Povman: It's gotten bigger and it's gotten to a point where we've needed to put systems in place to help manage it: technology systems, management systems in order to keep track of the work that everyone's doing. We keep records of how many hours people are putting in, what projects they're working towards. It’s important for us to keep track of hours because BNY Mellon’s Community Partnership program matches hours that the attorneys and non-legal staff work with donations to the organizations we serve.

Do you have statistics for the number of lawyers who have participated and the hours?

Gudaitis: Our numbers don't go back very far because we've just been putting these systems in place. Where we are right now for 2017: 33 percent of the attorneys in the department globally have participated in pro bono projects and the hours that have been recorded are about 1,050. Of course, it’s August right now, so we expect that number to increase. Part of our job is to encourage folks to take this kind of work on. To organize it for them, make it as easy for them as we can. And the result, we hope, will be good work for deserving people and an increase in the participation.

Also, that number may change because, unlike at a law firm, there's nobody here pushing you to enter your hours because of the demands of hourly billing. There are some folks who probably have not recorded their pro bono hours yet, so that number will increase.

When did you first connect with the Pro Bono Institute and how have they been of assistance?

Gudaitis: The Pro Bono Institute has been of assistance to us from day one. They have the expertise and the resources to assist departments that are looking to set up effective pro bono programs. There were, I believe, some initial meetings back in 2012, and PBI provided some of the initial thinking and guidance on how to structure the program. Since then there have been numerous times that we've reached out to them. One that comes to mind was last year. Our legal department was having a global offsite meeting, which doesn't happen very frequently, and our general counsel asked the pro bono committee to do a one-hour presentation. We were scratching our heads a little about what would be the most effective thing to do, and we gave Eve Runyon over at PBI a call and she and her colleagues suggested doing a poverty simulation, which we did. It was based on resources they directed us to, and it went over very, very well with the crowd. Also, Michael and I both participated in their annual three-day conference last year, and it was extraordinarily helpful.

What are some of the lessons you've learned from your experiences that would be useful to companies that haven't done the organizing you've done in the last few years?

Gudaitis: You can choose different ways to organize a program. Some departments have a thematic approach to the projects they undertake. Given that our goal is to encourage as many lawyers in the department to provide as much pro bono service as they are able and interested in doing, we try to build our program around what we perceive to be the types of projects that they find of greatest appeal. We give people as broad a range of topic areas as we can, and we offer different types of service, different types of legal representation. For our attorneys who are juggling very busy schedules, in many cases limited-scope projects are the right way to go. These include clinics and perhaps research projects, or participating in help lines, where folks are calling in for legal advice, help with benefits, assistance with forms, that sort of thing. Those projects have a beginning and an end, and they have been more popular. So we have a focus on those. I think that's part of the reason we've been successful.

Povman: The other thing I would say is that it's really important, when setting up a program, to make sure that you have the support of the senior levels in the legal department and perhaps even the company. Publicity and the internal marketing of the program are also extremely important after getting the program set up.  Make sure that people are aware of what you're doing, make sure that pro bono activity is constantly being focused on. We have an internal social media site, where we feature our pro bono activities, and having that kind of internal exposure and keeping the work of the committee in front of the entire department is very important.

Gudaitis: That support from the top is probably the single most important thing, because it's not only a matter of visibility, which is essential, but it’s important that people understand that they're allowed to do this. That they can take some time from their job, from their normal hours – so long as they complete all of their job responsibilities – and that people won't look down on them for doing this kind of work.

Povman: It’s not just allowed, but actually encouraged.

Gudaitis: Right. We've been blessed, as administrators of the pro bono program, to have a general counsel in BNY Mellon’s Kevin McCarthy who could not be a greater advocate of pro bono. 


Arunas Gudaitis is a Managing Director and Senior Managing Counsel in BNY Mellon’s Legal Affairs Department. He is the lead lawyer for BNY Mellon’s Global Client Management unit, which focuses on developing strategic relationships with, and solutions for, the company’s largest and most complex clients. He is also the co-chair of the company’s Pro Bono Committee. He can be reached at Arunas.Gudaitis@bnymellon.com.

Michael Povman is Associate General Counsel at BNY Mellon, where he leads the IP, IT, Social Media and Real Estate group. He also serves as co-chair of the Pro Bono Committee. He has worked in various capacities at the company for more than 25 years. He can be reached at michael.povman@bnymellon.com.