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Pro bono, pro business Featured

5:37am EDT August 23, 2005
Community spirit is contagious, and good works give clients with an altruistic conscience more reason to do business with a law firm.

Pro bono legal counsel is paying off for Blank Rome, where the benefits are twofold — associates can marry their profession with their passion for a cause, and Philadelphia organizations gain access to legal representation, says Kathy Ochroch, associate and pro bono director for Blank Rome.

“As attorneys, we have an ethical duty to ensure that everyone, regardless of income, has access to justice,” she says. “We have special skill sets we can provide to the community to help others. There is such a great need for pro bono services and, as lawyers, we have a unique ability to help meet that need.”

To encourage associates and paralegals to take on pro bono work despite demanding workloads and pressure to hit billable hour quotas, Blank Rome in 2001 named Ochroch the firm’s first pro bono coordinator and increased her pro bono concentration from about 40 percent to nearly 70 percent. As coordinator, she links lawyers to clients in need of legal services.

And as a bonus to the firm, pro bono work wins over clients who are interested in partnering to help the Greater Philadelphia community.

“We can work together with clients and community organizations to help each other do good,” Ochroch says.

Smart Business spoke with Ochroch about the importance of formalizing a pro bono system and the benefits to the firm, the clients and the community.

What type of pro bono work do employees do?

Pro bono family law is an area where there is tremendous demand for services. Custody, divorce and adoption are a few examples. Most lawyers choose pro bono work for issues they feel passionately about — places where they feel they can make a difference and give back to the community.

What professional benefits do employees gain from pro bono work?

Pro bono gives young attorneys an opportunity to build skill sets and get real on-the-job training. Certainly, for some people, there is a desire to do pro bono work to get into court and represent clients. But for most people, it’s really a matter of wanting to give back.

Describe Blank Rome’s structured pro bono program.

In 2001, we instituted the first official, formal pro bono policy. It encourages every attorney and paralegal to give at least 50 hours of pro bono service a year. Up to 50 of these hours can be counted the same as billable hours. Besides this policy, the program includes a pro bono committee and coordinator.

The structure helped us increase our pro bono participation significantly, from 1,700 hours in 2001 to close to 11,000 hours in 2004. Before a formal structure was put into place, billable hour credit was not awarded for pro bono work and people weren’t recording the time they spent doing pro bono.

The pro bono program has received great reception from the firm as a whole, but we still have a way to go. Firmwide, 102 attorneys gave more than 20 hours last year. We had more than 50 attorneys provide more than 50 hours. Our goal is to get everyone to do 50 hours of pro bono work, and we are getting closer. The year before, we only had 60 lawyers who provided more than 20 hours.

Why is it important to create a structure to promote pro bono work rather than maintain a loose policy?

The structure lets attorneys know that the firm is squarely behind the pro bono effort. Certainly, it helps from a practical standpoint because a committee and coordinator provide dedicated people to assist lawyers in finding pro bono work.

Also, the system allows younger attorneys to take part in pro bono work starting with their very first days at the firm. Life gets very busy, and chances are, if you wait until a good time to get started on a pro bono case, you won’t get involved. The program gives people an added push and it lets them know that pro bono is something that is looked at favorably.

How do programs that promote community service help Blank Rome’s recruiting efforts? Recognizing and having a strong pro bono program is really crucial to the growth and success of the firm. Pro bono provides a great morale boost. It makes people feel good about the work they are doing, and it’s a terrific training ground, as well.

It’s easy to see how important the pro bono effort is to recruiting and retaining associates. More law students consider pro bono programs when choosing a firm. The same is true for keeping associates satisfied and happy, and retaining top talent at the firm.

Has the firm’s increase in pro bono work helped it gain new business? Clients are starting to place importance on a firm’s pro bono work. Occasionally, clients will inquire about our pro bono participation. Also, more clients are seeking to do pro bono work and are partnering with law firms. We can utilize our pro bono [relationships] in all aspects of the firm. For example, two years ago, we partnered with a client to adopt a drop-in center. The shelter is called the Perimeter, and it is for veterans.

Through a program called Homeless Advocacy Project (HAP), we do legal intake with homeless veterans once every other month. We partnered with our client, Exelon, so attorneys from Blank Rome, Exelon’s in-house counsel and HAP associates help veterans with legal concerns.

But there are a wide variety of issues that arise, from veteran benefits, driver’s license and family law issues, to custody and divorce. It has been terrific work, and considering what is going on in the world today, being able to help veterans is very rewarding.

What internal support do you offer associates who contribute to the community through pro bono work? We started the Blank Rome Child Advocacy Practice Group, which includes all of the attorneys who do support center work and represent abused and neglected children. We have 25 to 30 volunteers who help the Support Center for Child Advocates. This organization is dedicated to representing abused and neglected children in Philadelphia, and it is one of the prime pro bono organizations in the city and, as far as children’s organizations, in the country.

Our Child Advocacy Practice Group meets four times each year to discuss issues related to child advocacy, and we support one another in the work we are doing. If someone has an emergency and needs another associate to cover a court date, or if a lawyer has a question about an issue or needs help with a case, they know who else in the firm handles child advocacy matters and they can reach out to these colleagues.

There are several other firms that have created child advocacy practice groups, and we invite them to our meetings. It’s a collective effort to help children, which is the best part about it.

How to Reach: Blank Rome, (215) 569-5500 or http://www.blankrome.com