Fear and lack of passion are the greatest barriers to lawyers participating in pro bono work, according to a group of legal experts who spoke Tuesday during an inaugural pro bono summit co-sponsored by the State Bar of Texas and Texas Access to Justice Commission.
Yet the time is now for lawyers to step up because Texans are in dire need of pro bono legal help, Texas Supreme Court Justice Brett Busby emphasized during opening remarks.
Nearly 4 million Texans live below the federal poverty line and approximately 5.4 million Texans qualify for civil legal aid, Justice Busby said, but there’s approximately one federally funded legal aid lawyer for every 12,000 Texans who qualify for civil legal aid — a stark comparison to the one to 465 ratio of private lawyers to Texans living above legal aid guidelines.
“The reality is that less than 10 percent of the civil legal needs of low income Texans are currently being met through the combined efforts of legal aid, pro bono and the private bar,” said Justice Busby, who is SCOTX’s Texas Access to Justice liaison. “The good news is we can all be part of the solution. I urge you to encourage others — not only attorneys, but law students, paralegals, interpreters, administrative assistants and other support staff — to volunteer their skills to pro bono activities within our communities.”
In a double-feature panel discussion over Zoom moderated by AT&T General Counsel David McAtee, lawyers from Toyota Motor North America, Trinity Industries, American Airlines, Kirkland & Ellis and Jones Day as well as one solo mediator said they’ve found pro bono success in their organizations by eliminating fear, finding where the passion lies with their lawyers and utilizing law firm-client partnerships.
At the end of the day, “all obstacles boil down to one thing, and that one thing is fear,” said panelist Sylvia Mayer, a Houston arbitrator and mediator and founder of what became the Houston Pro Bono Joint Initiative, a group of private practice and in-house lawyers engaged in pro bono work.
“Think of all the things that can cause fear. People are fearful they will not have time available to do pro bono or they’re fearful it will have a negative impact on their compensation or career trajectory if they spend too much time on pro bono,” Mayer said.
“They’re all valid concerns, but we — as people who are trying to expand pro bono support — can try to alleviate some of that fear,” she added. “If people are fearful about pro bono because of the subject matter, you can address that by either evaluating them or finding a pro bono opportunity that speaks to the skillset they do have.”
For many corporate legal departments, the obstacle often lies in size and limited resources to commit to pro bono.
Smaller corporate legal departments that also lack structure (compared to larger corporate legal departments) will have less bandwidth to take on pro bono projects on their own — especially long-term ones, Trinity Industries Chief Legal Officer Sarah Teachout said. And even though the support staff of Trinity’s legal department have expressed interest in pro bono work, “we struggle to incorporate and find opportunities and teams that also include support staff,” she said.
Teachout said in the past, Trinity has “tried to set up” pro bono opportunities for the legal department but because the subject matter didn’t match people’s passions or interests, “the participation [wasn’t] really there.”
Now, Teachout said, leaders of the department try to gauge which issues the lawyers and staff are interested in, and they encourage attorneys to come up with their own passion projects so that company can find an outside partner to work with.
“The firms we’ve worked with on normal paying matters are fantastic about reaching out and providing us with opportunities to do pro bono work … a lot of firms do a variety of subject areas but they work to find areas of interest that our lawyers have expressed, and have really gone above and beyond for us,” Teachout said.
“It all boils down to passion,” said Mayer. “There has to be passion from the top and there has to be passion by the people doing the work.”
Toyota managing counsel Scott Young, who serves on the company’s pro bono committee, said the committee sends out a written survey to the legal department to ascertain which areas the lawyers are interested in.
“In our most recent survey, over half of the respondents said they wanted a pro bono opportunity to help advocate for children,” Young said. “We called up Haynes and Boone and SMU [Dedman School of Law’s] child advocacy clinic and spent time putting together an appropriately sized child advocacy project directly from the input we got from the survey.”
Both Young and Teachout said their legal departments have experienced success partnering with outside firms on pro bono projects because they often have the formality, resources and expertise that corporate legal departments often lack on their own.
Kirkland & Ellis pro bono counsel Kate Barry, who oversees pro bono in the firm’s Texas, California and Washington, D.C. offices, painted a picture of one such well-resourced firm. She said that Kirkland has an extremely structured approach to pro bono in which the firm treats it as its own practice — with pro bono counsel and support staff who manage and staff all the matters — as well as a pro bono committee that includes a firmwide partner chair and a partner in each office who serves as a local committee chair.
“The biggest partners in the firm who bring in the biggest paying clients are also the ones saying, ‘We want you to do pro bono,’” Barry said. “That shared respect that it’s not a separate — and [rather], a function to your duty as a lawyer — is an important part of the success of our model.”
At AT&T, McAtee said, “we try to have a formula that seems to work again and again. And that formula is to find somebody else — that two are better than one.”
“What we’ve found is law firms are more than happy to partner [on pro bono projects] because they’re looking for opportunities to spend more time with clients,” he said. “It’s really just a natural match.”
Jones Day and American Airlines are Exhibit A.
During the pandemic, they partnered up, along with nonprofit New Friends New Life, to help get criminal records expunged for human trafficking victims. Survivors of human trafficking are often arrested, prosecuted and convicted for crimes that their traffickers forced them to commit.
It was a serendipitous merger of passions. Helping human trafficking victims became an issue that American Chief Legal Officer Priya Aiyar identified as a fight “our frontline employees [had] the ability to be on the frontline of” when she joined the airline’s legal department in 2019, which at the time did not have a formal pro bono process. Combatting human trafficking is one of Jones Day’s global pro bono initiatives, partner Evan Singer said.
While talking with New Friends New Life, American learned that Jones Day was involved in the expunction project. Then the two partnered up. The cases flooded in, and together, they have expunged criminal records for roughly 75 clients, Aiyar said.
Singer said the “buy-in” at the firm for the joint project “was immediate.”
“Not only was it a great way to develop a client relationship, but it aligned perfectly with the pro bono goals across the firm: the opportunity to do really great work and help our junior lawyers have more responsibility and interact with the client,” Singer said during the summit’s second panel discussion featuring him and Aiyar.
As the referrals from New Friends New Life started to grow, Jones Day and American began referring some cases that they lacked the appropriate expertise in to Legal Aid of Northwest Texas.
Aiyar described her department’s pro bono work with Jones Day as “a bright spot for people in a tough time.”
“2020 was a pretty tough year for airline lawyers,” Aiyar said. “Our lawyers were extremely busy working on exciting issues for the company while worrying about their own job security, so I think it was a testament to picking the right issue [for pro bono work]. When huge things are happening at the company and things are beyond your control, I think having a project where [it’s] a small thing, but you can really accomplish something for someone, was a nice thing for people to do during a difficult time.”