Pro Bono - Law Firms The Importance Of "Tone At The Top"

Monday, August 1, 2005 - 01:00

Editor: What circumstances led to your becoming Director of Pro Bono Services at Weil Gotshal?

Buhl: My background is in infrastructure and business development, including fundraising for non-profit organizations. As a lawyer I practiced with the Legal Aid Society in their housing division in Brooklyn for a year before being invited to run a fair housing organization in Westchester County that investigated discrimination complaints and provided housing counseling services to low-income and special needs populations. After leaving the housing organization, I went to the Association of the Bar of the City of New York to start the Public Service Network, which was the brainchild of John Feerick, Dean of my law school, Fordham. He always had it in mind that there ought to be some central office at the bar association where attorneys who wanted to volunteer could find out about opportunities, both in pro bono legal representation as well as community service. I then moved to the New York Women's Foundation, a public foundation that raises, manages, and allocates funds to community-based organizations throughout the five boroughs of New York City. Both the Network and the Foundation required building non-profit businesses, looking for volunteers, developing relationships with both boards of directors and external partners. My last job before coming to Weil Gotshal was at The March of Dimes running their New York operations, where I reorganized the office.

Through a friend and fellow legal service professional, Michael Rothenberg (head of New York Lawyers in the Public Interest), I was introduced to Steve Reiss, the senior partner who is the chair of the Pro Bono Committee at Weil Gotshal. Hiring someone from outside the firm world was a really bold move. It demonstrated Weil Gotshal's commitment to a major effort to continue building a really top-notch pro bono department. What was important to the firm was to develop a strong infrastructure that could sustain continuous growth, linking the New York office and the regional offices, of which there are 19 with over 1,200 lawyers. It was a clear demonstration of the firm's willingness to think outside the box - organizing, rationalizing and unifying its pro bono efforts in exactly the same way it applies these skills to other practice areas.

While I do not get involved in case supervision, my job is to build the business infrastructure, much as I did with organizations I worked with previously, and to build on relationships that will bring us important and interesting cases for all of our offices. In this way we can connect our attorneys so that they feel more a part of one team.

Editor: How do you help in the selection of projects that will be of a firm-wide interest and involve many lawyers across all your offices?

Buhl: Traditionally, the firm has looked for relationships with organizations that open opportunities for many lawyers. Sometimes the matters are local, other times they may be regional in scope, but occasionally we've been able to work with organizations that use attorneys from a number of our offices. My background as a grant-maker and as a counselor to volunteers interested in non-profit organizations is useful because the screening process needs to be done deliberately and carefully. We are able to take advantage of clearinghouses in different communities, such as New York Lawyers in the Public Interest or Lawyers Alliance for New York. In some cases, if we wish to take matters from organizations that we might not know as well, we need to look at their financials, their board list, etc. in ways reminiscent of a grant maker's role in conducting due diligence. I consider my role as akin to running a corporate philanthropy in that we're distributing very precious resources: we want to do it in a very efficient and productive way.

Editor: How broad is the reach of Weil Gotshal's pro bono activity? Does it encompass community service as well as volunteerism on legal matters?

Buhl: . We only count legal representation towards pro bono hours at the moment, but it's very clear that community service often leads to pro bono services. Volunteerism is important to Weil Gotshal on all levels, and the firm really encourages and supports it. We're exploring ways to link legal representation with our philanthropies in a more meaningful way. Our London office is a superb example in this regard. Not only does that office link its philanthropic, public service, and pro bono work, but it is the leading provider of pro bono services in the UK. In fact, it just won two of the three major UK pro bono awards.

Editor: What is the history of Weil Gotshal's long-term commitment to pro bono work? How has this work become embedded in firm culture?

Buhl: The firm has a long history of encouraging pro bono work and public service at every level, from summer associates to senior partners. It is a charter signatory to the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge and our chair, Steve Dannhauser, is a member of the Challenge's Advisory Board. The firm's Pro Bono Committee comprises primarily senior partners and is chaired by Steve Reiss, who is a senior litigator. Most important, pro bono is an integral part of our culture here. The feeling is that we really cannot be complete lawyers without engaging in pro bono work on a regular basis. Paraphrasing Steve Reiss, "it's the right thing to do, and it's meaningful to career development."

We had some junior associates on a panel last week for summer associates to learn about pro bono. The associates talked about their recent pro bono activity and what they had learned. It was interesting to hear from them how they may have been a little overwhelmed by some of the big matters that they were dealing with on the billable side, but when they got involved with pro bono work they were able to see a case from start to finish and to see the difference that it made in the client's world. One associate really summed it up quite beautifully: "This is what you went to law school for."

The commitment to pro bono is very deeply embedded in the culture from the very top of the organization on down. On the other hand, there is no question that we can do more. We are trying to energize and mobilize all the firm's resources to get pro bono to be an even bigger part of the firm culture.

Editor: What is the program for indoctrinating incoming lawyers with what the firm's pro bono goals are as part of its culture?

Buhl: Year-over-year the firm is always working to grow this engagement and cultivate our commitment, introducing pro bono at every step of the way. The summer associates hear about it, it is in our recruitment material, and it's part of the orientation of beginning associates. We encourage new associates to take on pro bono matters during their first year or two. They are always supervised by a partner. We design training that all the lawyers can take advantage of, and we offer externships with particular non-profit organizations to both summer and regular associates. The externships vary in time from a few weeks to a year.

Editor: How do you measure outcomes of those externships?

Buhl: Because it is a major contribution by the firm as well as a commitment by the organization, the associate is expected to report back on his/her accomplishments against a given set of goals. There is an evaluation process that we go through with the organization. With that huge commitment of time and resources on the part of both parties, we are very clear that it has to be effective. In some cases we have continuing externships in which there is constant in-house rotation of Weil Gotshal attorneys. We have wonderful externships at Lawyers Alliance for New York and at Legal Services for New York. We on the committee feel that while the partners are deeply committed, the associates are the ones who will lead in the exponential growth of our pro bono activity. We've seen a huge increase in 2004 in pro bono hours firm-wide, growing 67% to more than 46,000 hours, which includes our international offices. This year we're tracking ahead of that.

Editor: Is the same commitment to pro bono found in your offices abroad?

Buhl: In fact, volunteering generally is an unusual concept in some other countries, but we are making some inroads. In some regions, the idea of using legal services to help the poor is really a new one. We are trying to unify our approach in setting out some guidelines that all the firm's offices can follow. While we cannot require it of every office abroad, we can certainly support and encourage it around the world. The UK office in London, again, is an example of great leadership in the legal community, and our Warsaw and Prague offices are increasing their pro bono activity. In other offices we have to find an appropriate way to encourage pro bono work. There is no question but that it deepens our practice in so many ways as well as the firm's presence in the community.

Editor: Would you tell us about Child Line, the one charity which your London office supports?

Buhl: It is an organization that was set up as a 24-hour free help line for children and young people to call with any problem. Counselors are there to help kids on a confidential basis find ways to resolve their problems. As a result of the Weil Gotshal office doing some IP and contract work for Child Line, our lawyers were able to persuade the members of the organization that not only they but also the non-legal staff would be available to work on the hot line.

Editor: Please tell our readers about the award given to Weil Gotshal's Houston office.

Buhl: With the Houston office's help, the Prairie View, Texas student chapter of the NAACP and individual students at Prairie View A&M filed two back-to-back civil rights lawsuits in an attempt to halt efforts by local officials and the county district attorney to impede the students' right to vote in Waller County, Texas. The attorneys not only secured the students' right to vote, but they got a public apology from the district attorney.

That office also won an award for election protection work with the Election Protection Coalition. The Weil team, led by John Strasburger, sought to stop voting irregularities in the national 2004 campaign. Not only did John and his colleague Chris Lopez work on these cases, but they also updated the Texas election law manual, recruited volunteers to work on election day, and held a training session for local lawyer volunteers. The Houston Lawyers Association gave the Francis Williams Advocacy Award to Weil Gotshal, and John received an award from the NAACP as well.

Editor: Why do you see Weil Gotshal in such a position of leadership?

Buhl: I think that as a firm we are particularly lucky because we have such stellar examples of top-down leadership in pro bono and public service. Steve Dannhauser, our chairman, is also a great example with his work with the New York Police and Fire Widows' and Children's Benefit Fund. Senior partner Ira Millstein's legal career is synonymous with pro bono and public service leadership. Steve Reiss, head of the Pro Bono Committee, came to the firm after a distinguished career at NYU Law School where he helped set up the Brennan Center. He continues to serve as their general counsel.We have a very dedicated Pro Bono Committee who take their responsibility for leadership very seriously.

Please email the interviewee at miriam.buhl@weil.com with questions about this interview.