The Evolution Of A Pro Bono Program Over Thirty Years

Wednesday, December 1, 2004 - 00:00

Editor: Mr. McCarthy, please tell us something about your career.

McCarthy: I came to Chadbourne directly from Fordham Law School in 1968, and over the years I have been involved in a number of practice areas. During the early years I was a corporate lawyer, and my practice consisted mainly of mergers and acquisitions. When the recession of the early 70s resulted in a decline in corporate transactions, I switched to litigation. In the mid-70s that evolved into appeals in the employment law area, particularly employment discrimination. That became my focus for the next 20 years. In 1996 I became the chair of the firm's pro bono committee, while continuing to carry a full workload, and then, in 1999, I became the pro bono partner, with the intent that pro bono work would take up most of my time.

Editor: Since you have spent your entire career at Chadbourne & Parke, can you tell us something about the firm's history and culture?

McCarthy: When I came to Chadbourne there were only about 60 lawyers. Thomas Chadbourne, who founded the firm in 1902, had been a highly regarded business lawyer, and many of the firm's clients dated back to his day. Among them were major corporations in the airline, tobacco, mining and securities industries. Mr. Chadbourne and his partners were known for their accessibility to clients, as well as for their ingenuity in deal-making, and those traditions were alive and well when I joined the firm, as they are today. A dedication to hard work, attention to the client's needs, innovative solutions and good lawyering are hallmarks of the firm, and this culture has prospered within a relatively democratic operational structure.

Editor: What kinds of pro bono projects did the firm undertake when you were getting started in your career?

McCarthy: Our formal pro bono program began around 1975 , but there were pro bono undertakings that long preceded that date. In his autobiography, which was completed in 1928, Mr. Chadbourne states that progress is not measured by the head of the procession, but by the hindmost. Some of our records from that era reflect that philosophy, and we have, for example, documents regarding an appeal of a pro bono death penalty case that date from 1933. Individual attorneys were handling criminal appeals for The Legal Aid Society in the 1960s, and we were also helping with the organization and incorporation of not-for-profit corporations.

Editor: How has this evolved over time?

McCarthy: Since the mid-1970s, when the pro bono program was formally organized, the evolution has been significant. During the early period there was a small pro bono committee of four or five members - I was a member before becoming a partner - that reached out to The Legal Aid Society, the Lawyers Alliance for New York and other organizations for assignments. Today, our committee has 20 members from three domestic offices and four foreign offices, Kiev, London, Moscow and Warsaw, and we regularly work with many more referral organizations.

In the 1990s we began a pro bono orientation for the incoming class of associates, and this was then extended to our summer associates program. We became a signatory member of the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge in 1994. A couple of years later we instituted a pro bono awards program to recognize the attorneys who undertake pro bono work and to encourage others to follow their example. I am happy to say that this has been so successful that I recently appointed a committee to consider revamping the awards because we have so many attorneys making the honor roll - those with 50 hours or more of pro bono service - that the awards are losing some of their lustre. The advent of www.probono.net, which is the online source of matter lists, training calendars, model forms, and so on, has greatly facilitated the administration of our pro bono program in the last few years.

I became chair of the pro bono committee in 1996 and the pro bono partner in 1999. The latter constituted a further formalization of the program and a reflection of how important pro bono activities have become in the achievement of the firm's goals.

Editor: What does this entail in terms of your time?

McCarthy: My principal responsibility is to manage and grow the program internally, come up with new ideas and develop new projects. This involves contacting people, reaching out to other organizations - both service providers and the recipients of pro bono services - and working with our marketing, recruiting and training people. At the time I became pro bono partner, this involved around 80 percent of my time. In the past couple of years, my services were needed on client matters, so it was less, but I expect to get back to the point where it will entail the bulk of my time. I have discovered that managing a good pro bono program requires time for planning, rather than simply reacting to the needs or crisis of the moment. You need time for guiding the pro bono committee through thoughtful deliberations, circulating within the firm to talk to practice heads, partners and associates, attending pro bono functions outside the firm, maintaining an ongoing discussion with the various legal service providers, and the like. To do it well entails a near full-time commitment, and I say this even though I have a capable assistant who takes care of the day-to-day matters.

Editor: How do these projects originate?

McCarthy: They originate in three basic ways. The primary one is referral from a legal service provider. This is a valuable source of good projects because the service provider has screened the project to make sure that the applicants qualify for pro bono services before sending them on to us. Another source is from within the firm. One of our attorneys will hear about a worthy project and ask if the pro bono committee will approve it. A third source is our clients. Client-originated projects are great as they combine worthy pro bono undertakings with client relations.

Editor: How do you go about staffing for specific projects?

McCarthy: There was a time when about 80 percent of our pro bono work was handled by litigators. One of our partners set out to correct this situation and set up an arrangement with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone that has brought some excellent pro bono corporate projects to the firm. In 2003, our statistics indicate that about 35 percent of our pro bono work was performed by corporate lawyers, 35 percent by litigators and 30 percent by other groups. Most of the staffing is left to the attorneys themselves, and we encourage a team approach so that there is backup when other obligations intrude. Our political asylum cases are staffed by a partner who asks for volunteers - and gets more than he can use - and who then steps back and supervises. For the most part, we do not have any problem staffing the pro bono matters we handle.

Editor: Do your associates count their pro bono hours towards their billable hour requirement?

McCarthy: Up to 100 hours of pro bono time is counted as billable time. An additional 200 hours can be used to count towards an attorney's required time for firm activities, an area that includes recruiting and writing articles. Some time consuming matters, such as court assigned prisoners' rights cases, political asylum cases and our externship at The Door Legal Services Center are recognized as uniquely important matters for the firm, and are given heightened consideration during evaluations. Indeed, we have had associates with over 1,000 hours on pro bono matters within a single year who have received the highest level of bonus.

Editor: Any joint undertakings between the firm and the lawyers from a client's law department?

McCarthy: Not yet. I am disappointed about this, and we are trying to do something about it. As we indicate on our website, we would welcome such a partnership arrangement with in-house legal departments. I think it has to be the right project, however, and we are attempting to identify one.

Editor: Is a strong pro bono program helpful in the firm's recruiting and retention efforts?

McCarthy: I have always believed that having a good pro bono program is very helpful in both recruiting and retention. There may not be empirical evidence for this, but on several occasions I have been asked to speak to very highly regarded first-year applicants about our program when they are wavering between Chadbourne and some other firm. Our summer associates have been very impressed with the program, and I think that it has been a strong factor with many of those who have accepted our offer of employment.

Retention is more difficult to assess. There is no question but that there is a great deal of personal satisfaction in helping those who cannot afford legal services. Pro bono work also can provide something of an energizing respite from regular work, and, in addition, it provides an opportunity for a young lawyer to appear in court, to conduct negotiations and to shoulder responsibilities that might otherwise be years in coming. All of this adds up to a positive firm experience, and I have to think that helps in retention.

Editor: Please tell us about the values the firm is attempting to encourage with its pro bono program.

McCarthy: Helping those who cannot afford access to the justice system is certainly among the principal values that the firm is trying to instill through its pro bono program. And access to justice is more than being heard in court. It means access to legal assistance, to a lawyer in any undertaking that requires a licensed attorney. By virtue of our position, we in the legal profession hold the keys to the courts, to the administration of government and to all of the economic and social activities that define our lives. We have a very privileged, and unique, position in society. It is incumbent on us, therefore, as the codes of professional conduct reflect, to use our skills not only on behalf of the clients that are paying for them, but also for those who cannot afford to pay, because in the end we are using those skills in order to benefit everyone, ourselves included. As President Kennedy said, "If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich."

Editor: Is there anything you would like to add?

McCarthy: I recently conducted a comprehensive review of the pro bono program for the firm's management committee and suggested that while we have a very good program, we need to raise the bar somewhat. The pro bono committee has made several suggestions in this regard, and we are in the process now of trying to work out the details. I am hopeful that by year end we will be able to announce a number of changes that will serve to enhance what is already underway. The point, of course, is that no matter how good such a program is, there is always room for improvement, both here and abroad. I am very gratified to be part of a program that is now international in scope and that has steadily improved over the years and continues to improve. That, I think, is part of living up to our professional obligations as lawyers participating in a global economy.