Overcoming Challenges to In-House Pro Bono: Time Limitations

Topics: Access to Justice, Business Development & Marketing Blog Posts, Corporate Legal, Diversity, Government, Law Firms, Leadership, Pro Bono


While in-house pro bono has expanded exponentially in recent years, many legal departments have yet to adopt a formal pro bono program or develop opportunities for their legal staff to provide pro bono services. The reasons vary; however, having worked with more than 800 legal departments since 2000, Corporate Pro Bono (CPBO)—the global partnership project of the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) and the Pro Bono Institute (PBI)—has found that one of the most common concerns expressed is time: Where will the department find the time to plan and manage a pro bono program, much less volunteer?

Unlike large law firms, with rare exceptions, legal departments do not have full-time or even part-time pro bono coordinators. As a result, in-house pro bono leaders do so in addition to their existing responsibilities and may wonder: Even if we build it, when everyone is stretched so thin, who will volunteer? Fortunately, there are a variety of ways to address concerns regarding the time involved with starting a program as well as with volunteering.

Many Hands Make Light Work

First, spread the responsibility. For a department starting a pro bono program, forming a committee or task force will not only limit the amount of time any one person spends, but will provide valuable perspectives of diverse constituents. Increasingly, departments assign specific roles to legal staff, such as a project leader, or a communications director, and the like. The same concept applies to organizing pro bono legal services. In addition, teaming colleagues to volunteer on pro bono matters means that the work is shared and back-up is provided should a conflict arise.

Getting By with a Little Help from My Friends

Working with legal services organizations, law firms, and other legal departments is a great way to supplement a department’s efforts. Partners may provide many benefits, such as guidance, expertise, and resources.  Partners also can expand the opportunities that departments offer their attorneys and legal staff through relationships, knowledge of legal needs, as well as potential training and support. For example, American International Group, Inc. works with IRAP, which provides training, cases, and ongoing support for volunteers to assist refugees, whose lives are in imminent danger due to their work with the U.S. government in Iraq and Afghanistan. This support can bring comfort to in-house pro bono leaders as well as in-house volunteers.

Many Pro Bono Opportunities are Time-Limited

Another relief is that there are many pro bono opportunities that are finite and reliably scheduled. Limited-scope or limited assistance representation is an increasingly popular model that permits attorneys to assist a client on a limited basis, performing only specified services. Such projects include staffing hotlines and interactive websites that allow single questions to be posed, or participating in brief advice clinics, as well as drafting contracts or ghost-writing pleadings.  Lawyers from CenturyLink Inc. staff the phones for a court-based resource center for unrepresented individuals in family and landlord tenant cases in Denver. Legal staff at Ford Motor Company in Detroit provide brief advice at clinics that assist individuals and families eligible to receive food stamps and that provide legal help to community-based nonprofit organizations.

No Need to Recreate the Wheel

Finally, utilizing the expertise and time of others is another option. As noted, there are hundreds of legal departments engaged in pro bono and many in-house pro bono leaders are happy to share what they have learned. In addition, CPBO has compiled numerous resources tailored to the unique needs of in-house pro bono, such as: Pro Bono Development Guide: How to Start an In-House Pro Bono Program, Multijurisdictional Practice in the U.S.: In-House Counsel Pro Bono, and Professional Liability Insurance for In-House Pro Bono.