Letter From A Member And The Chair Of The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s Standing Committee On Pro Bono Legal Services

2013-03-20 12:40

To The Readers of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:

Encouraging Pro Bono Participation By In-House Counsel

With the enormous demand for free legal services and the deep cuts to civil legal aid programs, the need for pro bono attorneys has never been greater. Law firms have a longstanding tradition of providing pro bono legal services. But for lawyers in other practice settings, such as those working in corporate legal departments, pro bono participation has been a more recent phenomenon. Over the past few years, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, through its Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Services (“Committee”) and its Access to Justice Commission (“Commission”), has focused attention on in-house lawyers as an untapped resource for pro bono needs.

In-house pro bono initiatives have grown over the past decade from a handful of promising efforts to hundreds of formal programs at companies of all sizes throughout the country. Backed by the resources and support of organizations like Corporate Pro Bono, a global partnership of the Pro Bono Institute and the Association of Corporate Counsel (“ACC”), many companies have embraced the important role that their in-house attorneys can play in addressing the pro bono legal needs of their communities.

In Massachusetts, for instance, the legal departments of Liberty Mutual Insurance and Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company have partnered with law firms, community organizations, and the courts to expand their pro bono offerings. At Liberty Mutual, lawyers engage in a broad array of pro bono matters, including housing, unemployment compensation, Social Security, and domestic violence. Partnering with a law firm, the company’s attorneys also participate in a legal clinic for the homeless run by the Lawyers Clearinghouse. Attorneys at MassMutual offer free legal representation to income-eligible clients through the Housing Court’s Lawyer-for-a-Day Program, and assist civil litigants in a variety of legal matters at the Springfield District Court. Attorneys are also working with community and legal services organizations to provide legal advice to nonprofits and to the elderly. For their efforts, both Liberty Mutual and MassMutual have earned the highest honors at the Court’s annual Adams Pro Bono Publico Awards. By recognizing these particular programs publicly, the Court hopes to encourage other in-house legal departments to follow suit.

Of course, pro bono work is not limited to formal programs developed in large companies. Even legal departments that are too small to have formal pro bono programs can take part in short but impactful pro bono programs like the ACC’s “Clinic in a Box.” This half-day program includes a one-hour training of in-house counsel on issues affecting nonprofit organizations, after which the attorneys provide legal advice to nonprofit pro bono clients on a variety of issues. In Boston, 75 in-house counsel have participated in such programs in the past year.

In addition to the annual awards, the Court has taken other concrete steps to promote pro bono participation by in-house counsel in Massachusetts. In May 2011, the Commission convened an In-House Counsel Pro Bono Forum, attended by nearly 120 participants, in order to promote pro bono work by corporate legal departments. Panels of experts explained how to establish pro bono programs and offered many examples of time-limited opportunities particularly suited for in-house counsel. The forum concluded with a pro bono fair with representatives from many of the state’s leading legal service providers.

The Committee also worked to change Massachusetts practice rules to allow more in-house lawyers to perform pro bono work. The rules originally provided that in-house attorneys who were licensed to practice in other jurisdictions but not in Massachusetts needed to limit their practice “to engaging in the practice of law as in-house counsel” in Massachusetts. The rule precluded 20 percent of in-house lawyers from performing any legal work outside the scope of their in-house positions, including pro bono services. The Court recently amended this rule to allow these in-house counsel to provide pro bono legal services “under the auspices of either (1) an approved legal services organization . . . or (2) a lawyer admitted to practice and in good standing in the Commonwealth.” With this rule change, Massachusetts follows the lead of several dozen other jurisdictions that now permit such pro bono work.

The ultimate goal of these collective efforts is to increase the number of in-house attorneys who are willing and able to provide pro bono legal assistance and to urge in-house attorneys to encourage the law firms they retain to partner with them in these pro-bono efforts. Pro bono work not only addresses the pressing need for legal assistance among those unable to afford counsel, but also enriches the attorneys who perform this work by diversifying their legal skills and experiences and reminding them why they went to law school. We urge you to join the many in-house attorneys who have already engaged in such rewarding work.

Sincerely,

The Honorable Ralph D. Gants and Susan M. Finegan

Hon. Ralph D. Gants is an Associate Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. He is Co-Chair of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission and a member of the Supreme Judicial Court’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono Services.

Susan M. Finegan is a Litigation Partner at Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky, and Popeo, P.C., appointed as the firm’s first Pro Bono Partner in 2007. She is Chair of the Supreme Judicial Court’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Services and a member of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission.