Merck Receives Special Pro Bono Award From NJ State Bar

Wednesday, September 1, 2004 - 00:00

For more than a decade, Merck lawyers in Whitehouse Station and Rahway, NJ, and in Upper Gwynedd, PA, have been helping provide legal assistance to the less fortunate through Merck's Pro Bono Program, ensuring equal justice for all.

The program began as an opportunity for Merck attorneys to meet their professional obligation - New Jersey courts, for example, require municipal pro bono assignments for practicing attorneys - but has turned into a chance for employees to expand their legal expertise and provide vital assistance at the same time. Their commitment was recently recognized when the New Jersey State Bar awarded Merck a Special Recognition Pro Bono award.

"The Merck program has provided a great benefit to indigent New Jersey citizens and has acted as a role model for other corporate law departments," said Karol Corbin Walker, president, New Jersey State Bar Association in a letter to Merck.

For the program, Merck partners with groups such as Legal Services of New Jersey, Volunteer Lawyers for Justice and the Pro Bono Partnership. Representatives from these groups bring cases that need legal attention to Merck's local pro bono programs in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, which decide if they have time and are qualified to handle a new case. Often, Merck attorneys pair up on cases, ensuring that if one is unavailable for a court date or meeting, the other can step in. And, when additional knowledge or training is needed, groups like Legal Services are able to step in and help.

"Our attorneys started off by handling simple divorce and bankruptcy cases, but over the years, the program has expanded to include guardianship, child custody, tenancy and domestic violence cases," said Mark Daniel, patent counsel, Rahway. Last year, the program in Rahway also expanded so that Merck employees help take walk-in cases at the Legal Services office in Elizabeth, NJ. "Our attorneys find that they enjoy the opportunity to practice in different areas of law, and to learn about different legal areas," Catherine Fitch, assistant counsel, Rahway, added.

In Rahway, where the pro bono department acts on a "small law firm" model, there is a separate phone line and post office box for pro bono cases, and a shared fax machine that ensures someone in the group is available to help track cases and ensure that they get to the right attorney. The group has found that its pro bono work has been a team-building experience.

"We have found that the pro bono program has provided a valuable team-building opportunity as attorneys and administrative associates have worked closely together to provide assistance to those in need," said Carolyn Coyne, administrative associate, Rahway.

Since the program's inception, nearly 80 Merck attorneys, plus support staff, have handled pro bono cases for the three Merck sites. Together, they have represented nearly 400 clients in cases. It's important help, considering that Legal Services estimates that one in three of New Jersey's English- or Spanish-speaking adults with low incomes has at least one new civil legal problem arise each year, on top of any existing legal problems.

"The program helps our attorneys sharpen their advocacy skills and broaden their knowledge, while in turn helping the poor and disadvantaged in our communities. It's a win-win situation," said Valerie Camara, managing counsel, Rahway.She added, "As the chair of the Pro Bono Committee of the New Jersey Corporate Counsel, I'd be delighted to hear about other companies' pro bono programs and to share information about Merck's experiences. Your readers can contact me at njcca41@aol.com."

This article was originally printed in Merck's daily newsletter and is reprinted here with permission.