Post 9/11: In-House Counsel's Commitment To Pro Bono Continues

Saturday, July 1, 2006 - 01:00

The Editor interviews Karen Sacks, Executive Director, Volunteer Lawyers for Justice (VLJ), a comprehensive pro bono program of the Legal Services Foundation of Essex County, based in Newark, New Jersey.

Editor: How did the NJ legal community respond to the World Trade Center attacks?

Sacks: The care, concern and offers to contribute pro bono services immediately following 9/11 were overwhelming. Working together, the New Jersey State Bar, the Essex County Bar and VLJ were able to match the needs of over 200 victims and their families of the World Trade Center attack with the skills and talents of pro bono attorneys in New Jersey.

Editor: Did VLJ exist prior to 9/11?

Sacks: Yes. VLJ was started in 2001 by a task force that brought on board such outstanding attorneys as Michael Griffinger from Gibbons, Del Deo, Dolan, Griffinger & Vecchione; David Harris from Lowenstein Sandler PC; and Susan Feeney from McCarter & English, LLP. We are delighted that they continue to serve on VLJ's board today.

Editor: Were in-house counsel among those offering to help immediately following 9/11?

Sacks: Very much so. Many attorneys from in-house departments offered to help, including several from Merck & Co., Inc. At the time, Merck's legal department already had a vibrant commitment to pro bono service, which had been initiated by former General Counsel Mary McDonald, and continues today under the stellar leadership of current General Counsel Kenneth C. Frazier.

Editor: Has Merck's relationship with VLJ expanded since 9/11?

Sacks: Yes. Merck has remained highly committed to helping those in need due to not only disasters but also legal challenges in their daily lives. Responding to the Merck attorneys' interests, VLJ held a series of in-house trainings related to guardianship law. To this day, Merck attorneys regularly handle guardianship matters through VLJ in addition to landlord/tenant and bankruptcy cases. Recently, some Merck attorneys have been trained to secure services on behalf of parents and caretakers of special needs children.

Our relationship has branched out in other ways as well. One of Merck's attorneys, Mark Daniel, serves on VLJ's Board. His professionalism, personal warmth and considerable expertise with Merck's pro bono program continue to be invaluable to our organization. We are indebted to Mark for his service. Merck also provides grant funds to VLJ, and Merck employees have made personal donations to VLJ, which Merck has matched through its Partnership for Giving program.

VLJ is not only thankful, but also incredibly proud, of our continuing relationship with Merck and the pro bono work that Merck attorneys are doing, and have been doing for the past ten years, to help those striving for equal justice.

Editor: Where does VLJ focus its efforts today?

Sacks: VLJ assists indigent adults, children and families with family law, consumer law, education law and housing law issues. Cases come from the judiciary and public interest organizations, and the clients are either directly placed with attorney volunteers, and/or they attend one of VLJ's courthouse-based clinics or legal education programs. VLJ is currently focusing on developing firm or corporation-specific projects, such as Merck's guardianship project, to meet the specific pro bono interests of the attorneys at those organizations.

Editor: How can corporate counsel help?

Sacks: Opportunities for volunteers abound. Corporate counsel can develop specific projects as I discussed above; render legal assistance through direct representation; train and mentor younger attorneys; conduct client intake at VLJ's offices; participate in a VLJ clinic or legal seminar; work with law students from Seton Hall and Rutgers Law Schools; provide advice and counsel; or provide financial support. In March, VLJ held a full-day training in special education law, and the training is available for viewing through VLJ's lending library. Training materials are also available from a full-day training session on family law that VLJ held on June 22.

Editor: What are the benefits of volunteering with VLJ?

Sacks: Attorneys who volunteer with VLJ can expect a broad array of volunteer opportunities as well as training, support and access to a number of resources, such as model forms and pleadings, free malpractice coverage, waiver of court costs and the use of litigation services, such as court reporters and translators on a pro bono basis. Volunteers who provide 25 hours of pro bono service may claim an exemption from Madden v. Delran pro bono counsel assignments. We never require that volunteers take particular cases. They do so according to their schedules and areas of interest.

Editor: Where can our readers learn more?

Sacks: They can log onto our website at www.volunteerlawyersnj.org or call us at (973) 645-1955. We are happy to answer any questions they may have and look forward to working with additional in-house attorneys to increase the level of legal services to the poor in New Jersey.