It Helps to Have a Partner: The key decision for Verizon was finding the right law firm to work with on pro bono

Wednesday, October 11, 2017 - 14:44

John P. Frantz is senior vice president and general counsel of media and telematics at Verizon. In 2009, then-general counsel Randy Milch decided he wanted to create a pro bono program for the company, and he asked Frantz to create one. “With two months of work and preparation,” Frantz said, “we put the program together and launched it.” It must have been a busy time, but Frantz isn’t given to dwelling on such things. He continues to chair the program, and he has no intention of quitting. “I love doing this,” he said.  The interview has been edited for length and style.

 

When did you first become involved in doing pro bono work?

John Frantz: My first pro bono case was when I was an associate at Kirkland & Ellis. I represented a World War II veteran in a claim for disability benefits that he had with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). I represented him in an appeal. My grandfather and his brothers were all World War II veterans, so I felt a personal connection to the client. The issue in the appeal was whether the VA had done enough examination and investigation to deny his claim. We prevailed in the appeal, so that was great. The result was a remand back to the agency for them to do more investigating, which ultimately never came to anything for the client. It was nice to win the appeal, but at the end of the day it didn’t deliver any money to the client, and that was disappointing. So that particular case was a mixed bag.

But clearly you got hooked on pro bono anyway. What has made this work so important to you?

Frantz: There wasn’t really a specific moment that got me saying, “This is something I want to devote a lot of my time to.” I enjoy helping people, and I enjoy creating opportunities for other people here at Verizon to connect with people in ways that they find meaningful. I felt like this program is a great outlet for that.

When you think about the various pro bono clients Verizon’s volunteers have assisted over the years, what have been some of the benefits to those clients?

Frantz: Our three key areas of focus are education and empowerment of kids, support for survivors of domestic violence and support for returning veterans. We also do a lot of work for nonprofit organizations and we host a number of community service events, in particular to help create opportunities for non-attorneys to participate.

For the mentoring program, our major partners are Street Law and NJ LEEP [New Jersey Law and Education Empowerment Project], an organization in Newark that is not far from our office in Basking Ridge. Those programs have given us a great opportunity to connect with kids who might be at risk and show them the range of careers and opportunities that are available to them in the legal profession, not just as attorneys but also in law enforcement or as paralegals and the like. We bring the kids to a Verizon office or to DLA Piper, which is our main pro bono partner, and our volunteers speak to them about their careers and the paths they took to get there, about the different types of adversity they’ve overcome. We’ve received a lot of great feedback, from teachers and students, about how impactful those programs have been, and about how the interactions with our volunteers expanded their view of what they could accomplish and what they could hope for in their lives and their careers.

In the domestic violence area, our primary focus has been on providing support for immigrant survivors of domestic violence. We’ve done a number of clinics where we have helped clients file applications for U visas, and those efforts have been very successful. Virtually all of the U visa applications we have filed on behalf of our clients have been successful. That assistance can be life-changing in a lot of cases. People can go from being undocumented, with all of the challenges that entails, to having a special visa that allows them to be here and work and gives them a path to a green card and eventually citizenship. It has been very rewarding for the volunteers – and I think very beneficial for the clients.

Our volunteers have also represented a large number of veterans in appeals for denials of VA benefits or for applications for a special benefit that the Department of Defense provides to individuals who were injured in combat, called Combat-Related Special Compensation. We’ve had many successes, which I would say are measured in two ways. One is obvious, which is that veterans who were denied monetary benefits received the payments to which they were entitled. But I think that the impact goes beyond that. We received a letter from a veteran who talked about how he felt like the system failed him because despite all he had done for the country, all the service he had provided, he was denied the benefits he was due. Because of the work that one of our attorneys here did with a partner at DLA Piper, he not only prevailed in the case, but he told us that the support he received restored his faith in the country. So the benefits of that work go beyond money.

How did Verizon come to partner with DLA Piper on pro bono projects?

Frantz: That was actually the first decision we made as part of the pro bono program, and I would say it’s by far the best decision we’ve made. It’s the thing that’s been most instrumental to the success of the program.

Our goal was to launch a national program all at one time. That was challenging because we had attorneys in 22 different offices spread over more than 20 states. To really have a successful pro bono program, you need a set of local partners that have access to a meaningful number of clients and cases. There wasn’t anyone here at Verizon who was knowledgeable about local partners in all of those different places. So rather than try to create 20 local programs from scratch, we made a decision to partner with a law firm that already had a great commitment to pro bono and a geographic footprint that matched up with ours.

We chose DLA Piper because we have a very strong relationship with the firm and they have an extraordinary commitment to pro bono. The pro bono attorneys there, whether it’s Lisa Dewey, Richard Gruenberger, Anne Helms or the others on their team, are incredible partners. They have passion for their work and they’re very creative. There was just a great personality match between our team at Verizon and their pro bono team. And virtually all of the places where we have lawyers, DLA Piper has offices as well. So, what we were immediately able to do was offer a set of opportunities to our volunteers across the country by simply including Verizon volunteers in activities and clinics that DLA Piper had planned.

Is all of your pro bono work still done in partnership with DLA Piper?

Frantz: Not all, but the great majority. There are a handful of things that we do where they’re not involved. That tends to be because we’re doing something in a place where they don’t have a lot of people, or it’s just not an ideal fit. But it’s pretty rare.

When did you first connect with the Pro Bono Institute and what has their role been?

Frantz: The Pro Bono Institute was instrumental in helping us establish our program. Randy Milch and [Pro Bono Institute founder] Esther Lardent were friends, and that was a connection that he helped me make right at the beginning. We worked with Esther and Eve Runyon, who’s now the CEO there, at the very beginning of our program. The very first meeting that we had about how to design the program was with Lisa Dewey from DLA Piper and Esther and Eve, and we talked about what our pro bono policy should look like, what types of opportunities we should make available to our volunteers, and how we could collaborate effectively. They were instrumental in helping us figure out how to design our program.

Since that time, we’ve continued to work with the Pro Bono Institute and with Esther, until she passed away last year, and with Eve on a number of different projects. We work with them through their "Clinic in a Box" program, where we have our volunteers provide legal advice to nonprofits or small businesses on a range of different topics, and those are some of our largest and most successful events. We’ve also worked very closely with them on the advocacy work around changing legal ethics rules to allow in-house counsel to do pro bono work. If I have a challenge or a question or an idea, Lisa and Eve are still the first two people outside of the company I call.

How has the program changed over the years?

Frantz: Well, the first thing is that it’s grown. We started out, for example, with Street Law programs in New Jersey and Virginia, and we are up to 10 at this point. We’ve tried to expand to every place where there are a significant number of volunteers who might want to participate. So the program has gotten richer just in terms of the depth of it.

The second thing we’ve done is try to be creative about finding new opportunities for people to participate in ways that deliver impactful service to clients. I mentioned the U visa work we’ve done on behalf of immigrant survivors of domestic violence. Initially, we would offer those matters to people as individual cases. But we figured out a way, collaborating with DLA Piper, to turn those into clinics where people could come and get the great majority of the work on an application completed in one day. We try hard to find new ways to package work that lowers barriers to participation by making people feel more comfortable with the support they have, or by delineating the amount of time they would need to spend on the matter.

One of the other big changes is that over the course of the last few years we have co-sponsored a fellow with Equal Justice Works. That’s an organization that works with companies and law firms to sponsor individuals who are coming out of law school and want to work at a nonprofit organization for a couple of years. They’ll go in with a defined project and the sponsors make a donation to Equal Justice Works that covers the cost of the two-year fellowship. We are partnering with DLA Piper to sponsor a fellow now, and we have a new one starting in September. The focus of these fellowships has been on supporting survivors of domestic violence, intimate partner violence, and human trafficking. Those collaborations have been great because we’ve been able to use the relationships we’ve built through Equal Justice Works to create new opportunities for our volunteers.

Do you track statistics for the number of lawyers who participate, year by year?

Frantz: Yes, we keep close track of all of the different people who participate in the program. Our attorney participation in the US has been over 50 percent each year since we launched the program and as high as 72 percent..

We’re also in the process of starting a collaboration with a start-up company named Paladin that helps law firms and legal departments connect volunteers with pro bono opportunities and track program participation, and I’m excited about that.

What are the benefits that a law department like Verizon’s, as a whole, gains from having a robust pro bono program?

Frantz: It’s an opportunity to do work that is incredibly rewarding. Because we are in-house counsel, generally we have one client. There are a lot of benefits to that. You get to understand the business really well, you’re a partner with the business, but it’s also limiting in the sense that you’re not interacting with a broad range of clients like a lawyer at a law firm might. It’s an opportunity to do different kinds of legal work, to work with different people, and also to deliver services or mentoring that is really valuable.

I’ve had many people tell me that they love pro bono work. It gives them an opportunity to help people in a way that they find meaningful. There’s a great individual benefit to that, but there’s also a great benefit to the department as a whole. Craig Silliman, our general counsel, sets the tone by being a very active participant and an evangelist for the program. He volunteers at many different events throughout the year and encourages everyone to participate. We have kickoff events at the beginning of each year where he gives awards to people who have made significant pro bono contributions. Pro bono is celebrated as part of the culture of our legal department, just as volunteerism and community service are celebrated and encouraged generally at Verizon.


John P. Frantz is senior vice president and general counsel of media and telematics at Verizon. Over his 17 years at the company, he has held a number of positions, including head of patent litigation and head of corporate litigation. He has chaired Verizon’s pro bono program since its founding in 2009.