Early Retirement Creates Opportunity For Fascinating Pro Bono Experience

Friday, October 1, 2004 - 00:00

John Canning
Rayonier Inc.

Four years ago, I took a severance and early retirement package from the corporation where I had been in-house counsel for over 20 years; I did this rather than participate in a move of the corporate headquarters away from the tri-state area. I had done a few projects as a Pro Bono Partnership volunteer while I was employed full-time and thought doing more work through that organization would be a worthwhile avenue to pursue as an early retiree.

The Pro Bono Partnership is a not-for-profit organization that provides free legal services and educational resources to nonprofit organizations in Fairfield County, Connecticut, Westchester County, New York and New Jersey. The Partnership matches the skills of in-house counsel from major corporations and transactional attorneys from leading law firms to the legal needs of tri-state nonprofits and also provides seminars for nonprofits on legal issues. Most of the Partnership's volunteer attorneys are still employed full-time as lawyers, but the Partnership also offers an excellent opportunity for retired attorneys to use their talents in ways that provide a great deal of personal satisfaction while benefiting organizations that provide valuable services to their communities.

I met in White Plains with Deputy Director for New York and Connecticut Maurice (Mo) Segall and Executive Director Rick Hobish, who were delighted to have me available for additional projects. I was comforted to learn that the Partnership provides malpractice coverage for all its volunteers and that, just like any other volunteer, I would not be tied to a commitment to handle a minimum number of matters but would be free to take on as many or as few matters as I wanted.

One of the first projects in which I got engaged was advising a pastoral counseling center in Connecticut that wanted to split off from a larger organization to which it had belonged. It was a true nonprofit version of a corporate spin-off. We needed to set up a new corporation, get 501(c)(3) status, work out termination arrangements with our former corporate parent, educate the members of the governing body that they were now trustees of a separate corporation with fiduciary obligations and take care of a multitude of housekeeping arrangements. I enjoyed working with the staff and trustees of this organization very much. I will never forget coming to one meeting where we were to discuss implementation of plans for the reorganization; it started at 9 a.m. on September11, 2001! Several of the trustees were clergymen and I will always remember how I learned about the unfolding of the tragic events that morning as each of these clergy got calls from their offices or from parishioners informing them of what was happening. The working relationship here was so good that once the initial project was over, I was invited to join the Board of this organization.

I also got involved in smaller discrete projects that involved bylaw and contract reviews for other nonprofits in Connecticut and Westchester County. I learned about dealing with the state bureaucracies that handle nonprofits when what started out as simply a bylaw review for one client grew into a project to reinstate its corporate existence because it had not filed its annual reports with the Secretary of State for over twenty years. Rick, Mo and Jennifer Hauge, Deputy Director for New Jersey, have always been extremely helpful when I confronted an issue where I was on unfamiliar ground. In addition, from the standpoint of generally keeping up-to-date on current legal developments affecting nonprofits, the Partnership has valuable resources available to its volunteers through its website and through seminars given by its staff.

Finally, utilizing some of my contacts from my for-profit days as well as nonprofit boards on which I serve, I succeeded in getting several corporate law departments to hear presentations from Rick and Mo about the Partnership's program. These presentations have led to the Partnership getting from these corporate legal staffs several additional volunteer attorneys working actively on matters.

I am doing less strictly legal work for Partnership clients now that my retirement life has evolved into one focused on nonprofit board service, including the Partnership's board. This has been a fascinating experience for two reasons. First, each board on which I sit has been wrestling with its own governance issues and I have found my own background dealing with boards in the for-profit sector valuable in providing input on these issues. Second, each of these boards is having to deal with major strategic issues about the future of the organization and its mission, and I personally have enjoyed being able to get involved in discussions and decision-making that go beyond legal issues and consider what a nonprofit's mission is and how it best fulfills that mission.

So my advice for anyone considering what to do in retirement is to give a serious look to the opportunities for pro bono legal service available through the Partnership. You will find the work you do very satisfying and meet some wonderful people in the process. And you can really write your own ticket in terms of what kind of work you want to do.

John Canning is Retired Corporate Secretary & Associate General Counsel, Rayonier Inc. Learn more about the Pro Bono Partnership by calling 914-328-0674 or visiting the website: www.ProBonoPartnership.org.