Pro Bono - Law Firms Pro Bono Work: An Obligation And A Privilege

Thursday, December 1, 2005 - 01:00
Robert C. Boneberg

Editor: Mr. Boneberg, would you tell us something about your background?

Boneberg: After being graduated from college, I worked in social services for a number of years. I went to graduate school at the same time and received a Master of Social Work degree from the University of Buffalo. Much of my work was with street gangs in Buffalo. I went on to work in Buffalo city government before going to law school. Since graduating from New York Law School, I have practiced as an attorney for more than 20 years.

Editor: How has your community and social welfare work influenced your pro bono commitment?

Boneberg: I think it is fair to say that some of the work I am engaged in today is an outgrowth of the work I handled when I was newly graduated from college. Working with street gangs and with community service agencies provides a kind of insight, I think, into the needs of people who have little in the way of advantages in our society, as well as into the needs of the agencies that serve them. I hope that I can put my experiences to good use in an already well established pro bono and community service program here at Lowenstein.

Editor: How did you come to Lowenstein? What were the things that attracted you to the firm?

Boneberg: A group of us joined Lowenstein in the summer of 2003. One of the principal factors in drawing us to the firm was its reputation for excellence. The firm also possesses a reputation for strong community ties, and anyone with a desire to do pro bono work is going to be responsive to a firm's community involvement. Lowenstein afforded us with an opportunity to develop our practices in conjunction with some of the finest lawyers in New Jersey and New York, and, at the same time, to participate in significant pro bono and community work.

Editor: Please tell us about your practice. How has it evolved over the course of your career?

Boneberg: My practice focuses on resolving business disputes. Much of my work is in traditional litigation, both trial and appellate work, but I am also engaged in considerable arbitration and mediation activity. Over the course of my career that work has become increasingly complex, which reflects, I think, the accelerating pace of complexity in modern business life and related disputes.

Editor: The last time we spoke, you had just assumed the chairmanship of the firm's Pro Bono Committee. What were your impressions of the program going in? And today?

Boneberg: My impression of the program going in was that the firm had a strong commitment to pro bono activities and that it encouraged everyone to participate in these activities. Over the past 18 months that impression has only been confirmed. What has changed, of course, is that I have gotten to know personally most, if not all, of the attorneys who are engaged in this work. Our attorneys practice in a great variety of areas, spanning both litigation and transactional aspects of the law, and they bring their varying experiences and perspectives to pro bono work. But, they share a truly impressive common element, the degree of personal dedication that they bring to their pro bono efforts.

Editor: Please tell us about the way in which the program is structured. Who, for example, makes up the Pro Bono Committee?

Boneberg: There are nine members of the Pro Bono Committee, both partners and associates of the firm, drawn from across the firm's practice areas. The committee meets formally several times over the course of a year. The overriding concern of the committee is to strengthen the firm's pro bono program. Accordingly, at our meetings the committee reviews and evaluates the firm's pro bono policies and procedures, and discusses new initiatives that will further our service to our pro bono clients.

Editor: Please tell us about the work of the committee. Does the committee decide what pro bono projects will be taken on, or not taken on?

Boneberg: All of the pro bono projects that the firm undertakes are approved by the committee. The general criteria for the firm's pro bono projects are common to most definitions of pro bono service, namely, legal services undertaken on behalf of persons or organizations that cannot pay for legal representation. In addition, the agencies with which we work are charitable institutions or are otherwise acting for the public good. Within those parameters, we encourage all of our attorneys to develop pro bono projects and we try to support as much as possible the creativity and initiative of the attorneys who may present possible projects to us. Lowenstein is a general practice firm with a very broad spectrum of legal work, and our pro bono undertakings reflect the diversity of the firm's practice. All our practice areas can make a contribution in the pro bono arena today. Accordingly, we encourage our attorneys to undertake a range of pro bono activities, including legal issues affecting proposed changes in social policy; landlord-tenant cases; political asylum proceedings; special education cases; domestic violence cases; corporate, tax, and transactional matters of great variety; and, of course, civil rights litigation of all types.

Editor: How does the firm develop pro bono opportunities for its attorneys?

Boneberg: Our attorneys are a primary source of our pro bono matters. In addition, the various agencies that we have worked with over the years often refer potential pro bono projects to us. Just a few weeks ago we held our second annual pro bono fair. Ten agencies, each with a distinct mission, came to the firm and were able to interact with our attorneys and discuss pro bono opportunities. The agencies that participated in this year's fair were the ACLU-NJ, Essex-Newark Legal Services, Human Rights First, NJ Institute for Social Justice, NJ Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, Partners for Women and Justice, Pro Bono Partnership, Rachel Coalition, and Volunteer Lawyers for Justice. In addition, pro bono matters are referred by the courts and by clients of the firm.

Editor: It has always seemed to me that the pro bono arena offered plenty of opportunities for litigators, but that finding suitable projects for corporate and transactional lawyers was something of a challenge. How do you go about spreading the work across the firm's varied practice groups?

Boneberg: As a firm, we have a large number of transactional clients - that is, clients for whom most of our work is in other than litigation or litigation-related activities. As a consequence, we have a large body of lawyers whose expertise lies in areas other than litigation and these attorneys are active in the firm's pro bono program. For example, our attorneys advise charitable and community organizations on incorporation and tax-exemption issues. We handle tax, corporate, and real estate issues, among a whole range of other matters, for community-based agencies. Employment law is another area of non-litigation pro bono projects for our attorneys. To be sure, it sometimes can be a little more difficult to find and develop appropriate pro bono projects outside of litigation, but those projects are there. We work at finding them, and to the greatest extent possible we try to provide pro bono opportunities across the entire spectrum of the firm's practice.

Editor: How about partnering with other organizations? Any particular areas?

Boneberg: We work with a number of non-profit agencies which, I am grateful to say, believe that Lowenstein is in a position to aid them and their clients. For example, we work closely with the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice on its various projects designed to promote social change. Our attorneys rotate through internships at Essex-Newark Legal Services. Partners for Women and Justice, which focuses on the representation of the victims of domestic violence, conducts training seminars at our firm to introduce our lawyers to their work and to help in the development of expertise. These are just a few of many extremely valuable partnering exercises.

Since I have been chair of the Pro Bono Committee, we have not had an opportunity to partner with the legal department of a firm client on a pro bono project, although this is a matter that I have discussed with several people from in-house legal departments. I think it is very important to get this right, and we will put a partnering structure in place when we develop the right project.

Editor: Would you share with us your thoughts about the benefits to the firm of engaging in pro bono work?

Boneberg: At Lowenstein we believe that it is an obligation and a privilege to engage in pro bono work. There is a real recognition that we have had opportunities granted to few, to attend law school, to become admitted to the Bar, and to join a law firm where pro bono and community service is at the heart of the firm's values. Those values encourage people to give something back, to make a contribution that will result in a better life for someone - or at least an equal chance for a better life - and even in a better society. That is the primary benefit to our firm, however intangible it might be. There are also benefits of a more tangible kind, including the opportunity for younger lawyers to develop skills in real-world settings that they otherwise might not have for many years, to deal with clients on a one-to-one basis, and to assume important, even life-changing, responsibilities at an early stage in their careers.

Editor: It also must contribute to high firm morale.

Boneberg: I think it does, and I think that our attorneys take a great deal of pride in the reputation that Lowenstein has as a respected provider of pro bono services.

Editor: What about the future? Where would you like this program to be in, say, five years? Are any new areas of interest emerging?

Boneberg: I would like to see the program stronger in non-litigation pro bono. There are many needs among individual and agencies for non-litigation pro bono services. It is important to seek them out, and we plan to do so going forward. Also, we are looking to expand our pro bono activities beyond our traditional focus. For example, we are working with an agency called Free the Slaves. This organization is active in attempting to end the trafficking of human beings in the United States and around the world. Such trafficking is a world-wide problem. It also reflects issues that are broader than what we have usually addressed in our pro bono work in the past, issues that may result in opportunities of national and global import. I would like to see our program move into other arenas that concern matters of wide impact.

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