Pro Bono Commitment Becomes A Fully Integrated Firm Practice At Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP

Monday, August 1, 2011 - 01:00

The Editor interviews Mark Hoenig , Partner, Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP.

Editor: Please describe your professional background and your practice. How did you become interested in pro bono matters?

Hoenig: I graduated law school in 1981, and worked for a short time at a different law firm before joining Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP in early 1983. I have practiced now for over 28 years as a member of the Tax Department, specifically focusing on commercial and transactional matters, business sales, acquisitions and restructuring. Said differently, I have always been a business or commercial lawyer, rather than a litigator.

Since the mid-1980s, my practice also has focused acutely on tax-exempt organization work, which is a subspecialty within the tax world. To a large extent, this was a fortuitous development. At the time, the head of my department decided to allocate specific areas and responsibilities to some of the associates and gave exempt organizations to me. From there, I was responsible for handling difficult questions or special situations that arose with respect to tax-exempt organizations.

That experience led pretty naturally into my extensive interest and involvement in Weil's pro bono matters. Given that Weil has always been committed to pro bono work, it was a natural migration to move in that direction in my own professional practice working with nonprofits. More importantly, it was a great fit for me personally, and my commitment has only evolved and deepened over the years. I have always believed that earning a decent living and providing for my family is important, but that the true meaning in life is derived from how we treat each other; I expect to be defined - to judge myself - based on how I have helped others. And so it has always been important to me to take pride in my work and, at the same time, to accomplish good in the world and to elevate my own existence. Drawing upon all this as motivation, I embraced pro bono in every possible way.

Editor: We understand you are co-chair of Weil's Not For Profit practice group and member of the firm's Pro Bono Committee. How do these areas intersect?

Hoenig: I was asked to join the Pro Bono Committee more than 20 years ago. That association has been one of the constants in my career at Weil and has given me both a bird's eye and an inside view on the evolution of pro bono at the firm. My service on the Pro Bono Committee and my work as a practicing lawyer engaged in extensive pro bono work included many projects that involved our nonprofit clients.

As my involvement in Weil's pro bono activities deepened and as my views matured, I was increasingly eager to ensure that Weil's services to the nonprofit community, whether pro bono or otherwise, were delivered in accordance with the firm's characteristic excellence. Weil operates at the very highest echelon in every one of our practice areas, and I was determined to be part of making sure that our service to the nonprofit community would be no exception. As a result, some colleagues and I forged the concept of Weil's Not for Profit Practice Group, comprising approximately 15-20 Weil lawyers from different specialty areas, such as tax, corporate, corporate governance, real estate, employment law and intellectual property. Our goal was to collect, synthesize and institutionalize Weil's firm-wide expertise in the nonprofit practice area.

Since 2006, this group has meaningfully raised the level of Weil's "game" in the nonprofit arena, including the development of a tremendous amount of valuable material, a world-class body of work possibly unparalleled anywhere. Some of this material serves exclusively internal Weil purposes, but much of it is used externally as our group is involved in many outside seminars and lectures. Overall, we have ensured that Weil's services to nonprofits under the pro bono umbrella are delivered at the very highest level of practice.

Editor: What is the extent of Weil's commitment to pro bono work?

Hoenig: Weil's pro bono practice preceded my joining the firm in 1983, and my own practice has matured along with the firm. It is no exaggeration to say that, in all my years at Weil, the firm's management has been loud and unequivocal as to Weil's absolute commitment to pro bono. The firm's stature as a long-term institution, something we have worked hard to earn, is based in significant measure on the fact that we have a long and unquestioned commitment to pro bono and to the communities in which we operate.

Currently, we handle hundreds of pro bono cases every year, and I personally get involved with as many as 30-40 non-litigation matters annually, some deeply and others as a quick "consultant" helping other Weil lawyers with their own pro bono projects. Weil's service to our pro bono clients ranges widely: we handle both short- and long-term projects, and we also maintain longstanding relationships with some of these clients.

Weil has a three-pronged policy regarding this work. The firm expects that attorneys will log at least 50 hours of pro bono annually, that all new attorneys will take on a pro bono matter within their first two years and that every partner and counsel will handle a pro bono matter every year. While 100 percent participation by all our lawyers may not be a practical reality, that is the bar we have set for ourselves. In practice, some attorneys have not yet met the expectations, while other attorneys are able to log a substantially greater number of hours than asked. With input from the Pro Bono Committee, Weil's Management Committee established this policy to reflect and implement the firm's top-down commitment and to communicate that management is paying attention. I believe our attorneys across the U.S. spend an average of 60-65 hours per year on pro bono work.

There are many factors in determining the firm's overall financial undertaking. Though the obvious calculation relates to the number of hours spent, there are many interpretations of what constitutes the true value of an attorney's time. I am routinely floored by the following simple fact: Weil's pro bono practice is equivalent to a middle-sized law firm that spends every working hour on volunteer work for the nonprofit community. The sheer volume of participation relative to the size of the firm is hugely impressive; Weil's lawyers are making a major contribution - a bigger difference in the world - than firms of comparable size or even larger, and for this we are very proud.

Editor: Does your own pro bono service concentrate in a particular practice area?

Hoenig: I focus on assisting charities with the work they do, often from the inception of a worthy idea, hope or vision by a single or small group of human beings.

In many situations, I am asked to help an already mature charity to navigate through a maze of legal and other hurdles in order to pursue a new initiative or a reorganization of existing initiatives. Charities that are already up and running may seek my help as they try to revolutionize their approach or explore the newest pathways to overcoming challenges.

Probably more often, I start helping people who have nothing but an inspired idea about how to make the world a better place. They need a lawyer to guide them through defining and refining their idea and then establishing the right framework in which to operate and successfully pursue their extraordinary work. I get to help them to figure out what kind of organization they want to be, where to set up shop, why, whether and how to incorporate, how to set up governance mechanisms (as I like to say, their organizational plumbing), whether and how to seek special status under the tax law, and more. As part of this process, I become an important part of their team, part of the early-stage development of the idea into a reality.

Editor: What is the most rewarding experience you have had in performing pro bono work?

Hoenig: The pro bono work allows me to be part of such a wide variety of good and noble causes that it really is impossible to identify which effort has been "most rewarding." I am allowed a part in the global efforts - literally global - to feed, educate, and heal human beings in every corner of the world. For example, my clients have included Save the Children, Planned Parenthood and Oxfam. The work that I've had the good fortune to do has been extraordinary in its scope and rewarding with respect to the people I am privileged to help. It's more than person-to-person interaction. Importantly, in many cases, the charities that I help are all about moving society's needle - not simply helping an individual person out of difficulty, but allowing communities, regions and perhaps even larger segments of society to recover and grow in the most critical ways. With that in mind, it is so difficult to isolate a single experience that stands out; rather, it is the cumulative impact of my work in this area that is most gratifying to me.

It's breathtaking when I consider the good luck I have enjoyed professionally at Weil as part of this program.But with all that said, I cannot deny that there is a somewhat different aspect of pro bono work that has the power to lift me as much as anything else. So many times during or at the end of a project someone has turned to me and in the most human, real and honest way essentially said: "Thank you. You have changed the world for me." I don't think it's too corny to say how powerful that kind of message can be.

In the final analysis, it's important to me to be able to look back on my life and know that I made a difference in a good way. My pro bono work may end up being among the most important contributions I ever make.

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