BellSouth's Pro Bono Program: A Successful History Of Partnering For Pro Bono

Sunday, August 1, 2004 - 01:00

S. Kendall Butterworth
BellSouth Corporation

For many years, the amount of pro bono participation by corporate legal departments was low. While individual, in-house lawyers may have provided pro bono services through various legal service organizations, there was no concerted corporate effort to provide pro bono services as a legal department.

What caused this trend? One explanation is that in-house counsel, unlike private practitioners, face additional hurdles when they want to embark upon pro bono work. First, not all lawyers may be licensed to practice law in the corporation's headquarter state. Secondly, unlike a law firm, the legal department is only one component of a corporation. While lawyers and legal support staff are well-aware of the professional obligation to perform pro bono service, in a corporate environment, pro bono work may be perceived by those outside the legal department as diverting resources from the ultimate goal of providing shareholder value. Third, many corporations do not maintain legal malpractice insurance coverage for their lawyers' pro bono activities.

With some creative thinking, these obstacles may be overcome (as is evident from the growing number of corporate law departments that are engaging in the pro bono projects). BellSouth Corporation's Pro Bono Committee has surmounted these difficulties by partnering on pro bono projects with its outside law firms.
Formed in early 2001, BellSouth's Pro Bono Committee is comprised of 20 members. Membership on the Committee is open to all members of the Legal Department (attorneys, paralegals and support staff), and membership is not required to participate in the Committee's pro bono projects.

BellSouth Corporation has a strong tradition of community involvement, and the Committee has tried to build upon that tradition by selecting a variety of pro bono and public service projects to offer to the Department that are in keeping with BellSouth's core value of making the community a better place to live, work and grow.

While searching for projects, the Committee members looked to lawyers in BellSouth's outside firms to learn what they were doing. Shortly thereafter, the Committee members realized that if they partnered a BellSouth lawyer with an outside lawyer (licensed in Georgia) on pro bono projects, those BellSouth lawyers who were not licensed to practice in Georgia could participate, thereby expanding the potential base of volunteers. Additionally, the Committee members recognized that many of the pro bono projects in which the outside firms were involved were organized by a legal services provider such as Atlanta Legal Aid (an entity that has malpractice insurance that covers volunteers). Two daunting obstacles were eliminated, and the concept of "Partnering for Pro Bono" was born.

BellSouth's first partnership effort was with the law firm of Kilpatrick Stockton LLP ("KS") on the Grandparent Adoption Program ("GAP"). GAP began a few years ago as a joint endeavor between Atlanta Legal Aid and KS. At that time, Legal Aid was seeing increasing numbers of grandparents and other adults caring for young relatives who sought to stabilize their relationships with the children. The parents of these children often were not available, as a result of abandonment, drug addiction or death, and adoption was a good solution. KS attorney Rick Horder, who had expertise in adoption law, created GAP to address this need. As lawyers at BellSouth and KS try cases together, do deals together and occasionally even socialize together, it made sense for them to do pro bono work together.

A ground breaking joint pro bono training followed, at which KS and BellSouth lawyers, who did not necessarily know each other, were paired to work on a case file to assist low-income relatives to adopt children for whom they already served as the primary caregiver. This unique partnership was featured as a "best practice" on the www.corporateprobono.org web site, a national organization that encourages corporate counsel to become involved in pro bono activities. The GAP partnership has continued over the past three years. Many of the cases have now been concluded. As new families were formed, so were new friendships between the lawyers, many of whom paired up again to help new families adopt children.

Another BellSouth partnership was with the law firm of Nelson, Mullins, Riley & Scarborough ("NMRS") on the Wills for Heroes project, a pro bono initiative that was born following the 9/11 attack on America. The project was designed by Anthony Hayes, a NMRS attorney who worked in the World Trade Center prior to the 9/11 attack. Hayes recognized that many firefighters and emergency medical technicians, who regularly risk their lives to save others, do not have wills to protect their families and loved ones. Volunteers for the project interview firefighters and their families and then prepare wills, living wills and durable powers of attorney as appropriate. The project has been a tremendous success. NMRS lawyers partnered with the BellSouth volunteers (which included attorneys, paralegals and support staff) to draft over 300 wills for two metro-Atlanta fire stations. To meet the continuing demand for wills, BellSouth and NMRS partnered again to draft wills for another fire department in July.

BellSouth's Pro Bono Committee continually seeks new partnership opportunities. If you have an idea or a program on which you would like to partner with BellSouth, please contact Kendall Butterworth at (404) 249-3388 or kendall.butterworth@bellsouth.com.

S. Kendall Butterworth is Senior Litigation Counsel for BellSouth Corporation in Atlanta, Georgia and Chair of BellSouth's Pro Bono Committee.