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How to Set up and Support an In-House Pro Bono Program

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on August 13, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Remember 1L year, when you told everyone you were seriously considering a public interest career? Or when you started at your firm, thinking you would take on plenty of pro bono on the side? Well, you don't have to give up the "good" part of practicing when you go in-house.

Plenty of corporate legal departments have longstanding pro bono programs. If yours doesn't, you can make it yourself, even if your department is small and under resourced. Here's how:

Setting Things Up

Your professional obligation to provide pro bono services doesn't disappear when you move in-house. Setting up an in-house pro bono program can be an easy way to fulfill your professional responsibilities and to remind yourself that lawyers can still do a little good in the world.

Start with the pitch. Remind your company or legal department leaders that pro bono work isn't just a serious obligation, it's also an opportunity to develop new legal skills. In-house lawyers can gain greater insight into "outside counsel tasks" like case prep, courtroom practice, and client contact -- insights that can be leveraged when selecting and working with outside counsel in the future. Plus, pro bono work provides an important P.R. boost for a corporation, providing further evidence of their commitment to responsible corporate citizenship.

Making It Work

Woohoo! You've decide to start a pro bono program! Now what? Part of making in-house pro bono practice work is making sure that there is leadership in place to handle the program. That often means creating a formal structure, such as anofficial business policy or pro bono committee.

For a program to be successful, it has to be supported internally. That means allowing pro bono work on company time. You'll also want to develop an explicit policy about the use of company resources for pro bono matters and make sure that in-house attorneys are supported with adequate training. After all, your good press can turn bad if your attorneys end up disciplined for practicing without adequate preparation.

A pro bono program is only as strong as its participants, so don't be afraid to do a bit of selling to in-house counsel. The ABA and the ACC have a wide range of pro bono resources to help you with everything from setting up a policy, to finding opportunities, to convincing your tax attorney that he has pro bono-worthy skills.

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