Silver Lining of Downturn: Pro Bono Aid
oP: What’s been the impact of the economy on the need for legal services, among homeowners facing foreclosure, nonprofits needing to support more families needing the safety net, at the same time the nonprofits themselves are being impacted?
NYLPI: The answer is E, all of the above. In housing certainly, thousands and thousands of houses and apartment buildings, affecting their tenants in turn, have been foreclosed. More than half the states are facing major budget deficits and the city and state governments here in NY have bigger gaps to close. Nonprofits are taking a huge hit, first because of government cutbacks, and then, because foundation endowments are down, they’re giving less to those organizations that serve as intermediaries to keep people from falling into the safety net.
Nonprofits and community groups also call us. This is the only place where there’s a general clearinghouse. For example, if a nonprofit has a real estate issue, they can call us and we’ll find a lawyer for them; we can do this with every specialty.
oP: So are you able to ease some of the pressure on nonprofits by doing pro bono legal work?
NYLPI: Yes, what’s really helpful for dozens of nonprofits in New York, is that we can find a firm to serve as their legal counsel. So at XYZ firm, the nonprofit will have a point person, someone to call when they need to, say, update their personnel manual. They will then have an ongoing relationship with that firm. Nonprofits have to be so lean now, that if they had to buy legal counsel, those matters would fall to the bottom of their to-do list. This way, they can seek help on legal matters before they become more serious and expensive.
oP: When it comes to law firms doing pro bono work, how do they decide how much to do?
NYLPI: Each firm has its own culture. For the vast majority, over the last 10 years, pro bono work has become institutionalized. One of the reasons we were founded over 30 years ago was to accomplish that. In the last 5 years, there has been an explosion of pro bono work. Now, we have built a pro bono infrastructure. When there’s an issue to be tackled, we can make sure it aligns with the philosophy of the firm. For example, if a case involves litigation to secure special educational services, we’d send it to Latham & Watkins. For cases involving disability, Patterson Belknap. Each firm decides what to focus on. Some do it from the bottom up, asking associates what they’re interested in working on. In other firms, it’s decided at the top, setting priorities, guidelines, the number of hours. In a recent trend, pro bono work is being counted when considering bonuses, with a minimum number of hours required. Firms have recognized that it’s important, not only for the community, but for the professional development of their associates.
oP: I understand some firms allow their incoming associates to do some alternative work at nonprofits.
NYLPI: Yes, Skadden, Arps; Weil Gotschal and others set up externships, where associates can fill a staff line at a legal services nonprofit for 3 months. It’s really a useful model, especially if there’s a case that can be handled in 3 months. If for example, the associate gets to handle a case in housing court, they’ll get the chance to stand up in court and argue a case. They might not have had that opportunity until they were at their law firm for quite a while longer.
oP: So pro bono work has become more incorporated into the law firms’ culture in recent years.
NYLPI: Yes, today, there’s a pro bono infrastructure. Each firm will have a lawyer who orchestrates and trains all functions involving pro bono at the firm. In this time of economic challenge and uncertainty, the firms are trying to be creative in how they use their resources. Frankly, some of the associates are not that busy, so firms have excess capacity.
oP: Do you have the challenge of finding philanthropic support for your own in-house team of lawyers?
NYLPI: Yes. We have a diverse funding mix, direct contributions from law firms, foundations, also from government contracts.
oP: What’s the size of your overall budget?
NYLPI: Five million dollars. The breakdown is about 20% from foundations, a little less from contracts, direct law firm support some of which is in the support of special events, which makes up more than 20% of our budget.
oP: And you raise funds for the clearinghouse you operate?
NYLPI: Yes, in the same way. There’s an incredible need for leveraging. We engage a lot of volunteers, ask them to help on other matters. This is done in Los Angeles and other big cities, too.
Editor’s Note: Nonprofits in New York seeking pro bono legal services can get information from the NYLPI website: www.nylpi.org.
An article recently published on the CNN website discussed how this trend is appearing in other cities as well.