Pro Bono - Law Firms An Outstanding Group Effort: The Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP Greater DC Community Foundation

Monday, August 1, 2005 - 01:00

Editor: Please tell us about your practice at Willkie.

Buono: I practice in Willkie's Telecommunications Group in the DC office.

Editor: How do you make time for your pro bono work?

Buono: I have always felt it is important to participate in pro bono and charitable work. Fortunately, Willkie is a place where such endeavors are highly encouraged and supported. Pro bono work counts towards billable hours just like any work we do for clients. The firm feels strongly about giving back to the community, not only in terms of pro bono cases but, more broadly speaking, in terms of support for charitable initiatives. Our pro bono cases run the gamut from helping individuals seeking asylum in the U.S. from persecution in their home countries, to representing victims of domestic violence, to helping a not-for-profit get off the ground so that it can provide housing to mentally ill women in DC. And our individual charity drives run throughout the year for numerous organizations.

When I started at Willkie in 1991, I served on the board of the United Way, which opened up a lot of other opportunities in terms of meeting people and learning about different charitable and pro bono opportunities in the area. I was able to run various charitable tournaments to raise money for local causes. That started a number of different traditions in the Willkie DC office, such as our participation in an annual softball tournament for the homeless and an intra-office basketball shootout competition to raise funds for the Whitman-Walker clinic.

Editor: What was the impetus that led the lawyers at Willkie to set up a Foundation?

Buono: Our DC office has grown significantly since it opened in 1981 from just 3 lawyers then to over 90 lawyers and 100 staff members today. And the growth in the last few years has been particularly dramatic. With this growth and success, we began looking for a way to give back to the community in a more organized, collective fashion that could magnify the impact of our contributions and also serve as a rallying point to keep us connected with each other. While as I noted we have always supported numerous charitable causes and drives throughout the year (and will continue to do so), we thought we could benefit local non-profits even more and bring the office closer together by pooling and channeling our dollars and volunteer efforts toward a bigger office-wide initiative.

Editor: Is the Foundation supported by the other offices?

Buono: Yes, there is incredible enthusiasm and support throughout the firm. We created the "Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP Greater DC Community Foundation" because the focus is on supporting non-profits in the Washington metropolitan area, but the entire firm is behind this initiative. In this inaugural year, we had 100 percent participation in terms of individual contributions from all 25 DC partners and counsel. Many associates and staff members also generously contributed. The firm was so excited about this effort, and particularly about the fact that we had all DC partners and counsel contributing, that it added a large firm-wide contribution on behalf of the other offices. This year we raised $160,000 and gave away about 55%, with the rest of the funds going to create an endowment for more significant future giving. I expect the contribution levels and enthusiasm to continue as we go forward, since we are committed to fund the Foundation annually. We are currently planning a series of fun events and office activities during the balance of 2005 to coincide with our fund drive this year. Participation is entirely voluntary.

Editor: Why did you decide to fund your gifts through the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region rather than making gifts directly to organizations?

Buono: Two of my partners, Phil Verveer and Martin Weinstein, knew about the Community Foundation from their past work. When we started to play with the idea of some form of more organized, collective giving, they suggested that we explore this organization. We invited the President, Terri Lee Freeman, and the Vice President and CFO, Kenny Emson, to make a presentation at our DC partner and counsel retreat two years ago. We were very impressed by Terri and Kenny and by the wonderful work the Community Foundation was doing to manage significant funds for non-profits across the Greater Washington DC area. We also felt that their knowledgeable staff could help us establish and efficiently manage our Foundation, guide us on where best to direct our funds and volunteer efforts, and audit our grantees to make sure they are doing what they committed to do with our donations. Looking back, this was a great decision, as the Community Foundation has been a wonderful ally in this effort.

Editor: How did you go about the process of selecting the two charities that were to receive your 2005 donation?

Buono: We knew that we wanted to have input from the entire office so we sent out an email early on asking for volunteers for an Advisory Committee. Amazingly, we did not have to go through a selection process to organize the committee. We had eleven volunteers, representing every one of the practice groups and every level of the firm from partner to staff. The Advisory Committee first developed a list of eight criteria for evaluating potential recipients. A central criterion was that the focus of the organization had to match the mission statement of our Foundation, which is to support programs and educational initiatives targeting underserved youth in the Greater Washington DC Area. The partners and counsel chose this mission statement for the Foundation because we wanted something that all of us could rally around without question. While our office includes individuals of many different religious, political, and ethnic backgrounds, holding diverse ideologies, we concluded that no one could quarrel with focusing our efforts on helping our area's underserved youth.

Beyond this program focus, we wanted to be sure that our contributions would make a significant impact on the organization, yet we did not want the organization to be so small and unstable that it would become detrimentally dependent on our continued annual donations in order to survive. We were also looking for organizations that offered assistance to diverse populations of children. Finally, we wanted organizations that would afford Willkie personnel many opportunities for volunteering, both individually and as an office, and that would also be amenable to having a Willkie representative serve on their Boards.

Once the key selection criteria were approved by the DC partners and counsel, the Advisory Committee began working with the Community Foundation to find organizations that best met those criteria. With their invaluable assistance, we identified 30 or so organizations that we narrowed to five through an intensive research and consensus-based process. We then sent these five finalist organizations a 6-page request for proposal (RFP) seeking various information about the organization, its mission, finances, future plans and needs, etc.

After receipt of the RFP responses, we conducted site visits with four of the organizations, where we met with the directors and kids themselves. We finally chose DC SCORES and Higher Achievement Program (HAP) as our two inaugural grantees. We chose these two organizations because they had provided great responses to the RFP, and when we visited them, the directors and their staff were so impressive in terms of the work they were doing and the impact they were having. In addition, the children with whom we met displayed a remarkable enthusiasm and love for the programs.

Editor: What is the mission of each of those organizations?

Buono: DC SCORES (http://www.americascores.org/index.php?id=123) is a unique after-school and summer program that combines literacy/creative writing, soccer, and community service for nearly 700 eight-to-twelve-year-old children in 23 DC public schools. The program features soccer two days a week and creative writing two days a week, with a soccer game every Thursday. The mission is to help kids develop intellectually and athletically, as well as to have something positive to do after-school everyday with people who care about them. Last year, the significant majority of DC SCORES students improved one whole letter grade in school and had reduced absenteeism.

HAP (http://www.higherachievement.org/index.html) develops academic skills, behaviors, and attitudes in underserved, highly motivated DC middle school children from inner city communities. HAP seeks to improve educational opportunities through high level academic training annually and placement into top area high schools. HAP students commit to 700 hours of after-school work annually on top of the 900 hours they spend in school. HAP's three core philosophies are: 1) talent is everywhere - in every community, 2) intellectual capacities are built through effort, and 3) opportunities matter. Seventy-five percent of HAP graduates advance to top area public magnet, private, and parochial high schools, and ninety-five percent of these students go on to attend college.

Both HAP and DC SCORES are wonderful organizations, and we hope to have a multi-year relationship with them.

Editor: How has your staff volunteered to assist these two organizations?

Buono: In the three months since announcing these two inaugural grantees, we have already been active with each organization. For DC SCORES, we have volunteered at the end-of-year Jamboree soccer tournament which meant doing everything from refereeing the soccer games, to helping the kids practice on the sidelines, to coordinating the arts and crafts stations. We also participated in this year's annual "Sharks vs. Suits" soccer tournament pitting local law firms against local businesses. For HAP, we are doing two things. We recently had HAP representatives visit the DC office to explain how volunteers can become HAP mentors in the areas of technology, math, or literature. Several of our attorneys and staff members have already volunteered to be mentors, which is a 26-week commitment, one evening a week from October to May. Also, we are looking to have HAP kids visit our office in October to learn about law firm life and then take a visit to Willkie's architectural firm so they can observe what architects do. We will expose them to these businesses because many of these children have never been to the downtown area of the city. We are also planning to assist as guides on summer field trips for both organizations to museums and the like, as well as to participate in the ongoing annual events of each organization.

Editor: How do you evaluate the success of the program?

Buono: It is a combination of things. First, we asked both groups to provide reports at the end of the year to show that they have used our contributions as they said they would. The Community Foundation will work with the Advisory Committee on the auditing process. Second, the Advisory Committee has in place a process whereby we get together once a month in order to review progress in each of these endeavors. I serve as the liaison between the Committee and the DC partners and counsel, and provide ongoing feedback to the latter group at our monthly luncheons. Finally, I expect the DC partners and counsel will periodically review more formally the progress and success of our relationship with the grantees at our quarterly dinners and biennial office retreats. We are determined to make this a successful effort, and we recognize that it will take consistent internal discussion to make sure that we remain on the right track.

So far, the level of enthusiasm and interest in the Foundation and in both grantees is high. During the dinner at which the entire 11-member Advisory Committee described our recommended grantees to the DC partners and counsel (which both received unanimous approval), I said then, and I continue to feel, that that was one of my proudest moments at Willkie. The Foundation is a terrific group effort - a great way to give back to our community and to achieve a common goal that is truly worthwhile.

Please email the interviewee at fbuono@willkie.com with questions about this article.