Pro Bono Partnership: Volunteer Attorneys Serving Nonprofits

Sunday, August 1, 2004 - 00:00

A recent study reported that 57% of Americans who volunteer believe that volunteering has helped their careers by providing them with opportunities to learn new skills, meet other professionals, or even by assisting them during a career transition. Many attorneys find that pro bono work provides a fulfilling outlet by allowing them to use their professional skills for the betterment of society - often by assisting nonprofits in their own communities or neighborhoods.

With nearly 650 nonprofit clients in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey and more than 400 new matters in any given year, the Pro Bono Partnership offers diverse and interesting pro bono opportunities for inside counsel and transactional attorneys practicing in areas of employment, contracts, corporate, tax, real estate, environmental, intellectual property and e-commerce and technology, as well as nonprofit law. This pro bono legal assistance helps nonprofits operate effectively and avoid risks and potentially costly mistakes. And, as one grateful client recently wrote, "The Pro Bono Partnership's assistance has helped us conserve our resources so that we may use them in pursuing our mission of providing comprehensive services to our clients."

Among recent pro bono matters, a trademark attorney secured federal trademark protection for a nonprofit's name and logo; a staff attorney reviewed a food pantry's personnel policies; a senior employment counsel provided staff training on discrimination and harassment for a battered women's shelter; a corporate attorney reviewed bylaws and personnel policies for a homeless shelter; and other attorneys helped a family services organization merge with a small immigration services nonprofit and developed a model management agreement.

The Partnership primarily provides pro bono legal services to nonprofit organizations serving the poor and disadvantaged. By the end of 2003, with clients continuing to increase at a rate of about 100 per year, the Partnership had extended its legal services to nonprofit organizations across a broad area of New Jersey, as well as in Westchester County, NY, and Fairfield County, CT. As a result, the Partnership has added a second full-time attorney to its New Jersey office, helping to manage the burgeoning demand for services and support a growing corps of more than 750 pro bono volunteers.

The Partnership boasts a high level of client satisfaction and is noted for conscientious support of volunteers. Later this year, The Guidance Center of New Rochelle, NY, will honor the Partnership for outstanding service and commitment to strengthening Westchester nonprofit agencies serving families and their children.

One of the Partnership's newest services for nonprofits is a seminar, "Website, Technology and Fundraising Issues for Nonprofits,"that addresses legal issues related to nonprofits' use and maintenance of websites, as well as the use of technology for more traditional fundraising, lobbying and political campaign issues. This seminar is one of many seminars the Partnership provides annually for nonprofit executives and directors, some of these with the assistance of pro bono volunteers. Other topics include employment law, board member roles and responsibilities, insurance and liability, legal issues relating to volunteers, sexual harassment, HIPAA basics and legal maintenance, among others.

A highly informative website at www.probonopartnership.org provides information about upcoming seminars, timely publications on legal issues, registration information for clients and volunteers, the Partnership's 2003 Annual Report and more.

•Its e-newsletter, also available on the website, includes timely advice to nonprofits. The Summer 2004 Newsletter, includes the following reminders:

¤In this election year, tax exempt charities are prohibited from attempting to influence elections

¤Nonprofits are prohibited from retaliating against staff members who "blow the whistle" on financial improprieties

¤There are penalties for late filing and incomplete 990's and the IRS may be stepping up enforcement. Also the IRS is planning to target charities whose 990's raise issues of excessive trustee compensation

¤New York State Human Rights Law was recently amended to require employers to post a notice stating that discrimination in employment on the basis of military status and sexual orientation is prohibited.

Attorneys wishing to volunteer with the Partnership can be assured that matters are largely discrete, manageable and consistent with the legal skills inside counsel and transactional attorneys use on a daily basis. Most matters are not time sensitive and can be spread out over the course of weeks or even a month or two. Other matters require only a phone call with a nonprofit on a particular issue.

The Partnership manages Connecticut and New York matters from White Plains, NY (914 328-0674) and New Jersey matters from Newark (973 273-0600). Two full-time attorneys staff each office. The Partnership's malpractice insurance covers all volunteers. Its staff attorneys screen potential clients and matters, stand ready to assist pro bono volunteers and, even, to cheerfully take matters back when necessary.