We spoke with Robert Mitchell, the new chair of K&L Gates Pro Bono Committee, and Carleton Strouss, who recently stepped down after serving as the committee chair for 10 years, about the firm’s pro bono program, including its international efforts and the role of technology. K&L Gates handles hundreds of pro bono cases a year around the globe.
Tell me about K&L Gates’ pro bono program – what are you especially proud of? What makes it unique?
Carleton Strouss: I think that one of the more interesting things about the K&L Gates pro bono program is that it reflects the growth of our firm. The firm is now multi-continent and multi-city and our pro bono work reflects that. We still provide support to meet needs in the local community, but we also see pro bono extending around the world and not confined to one geographic area. Pro bono is woven into the fabric of our practice, with our commercial work and pro bono work continuing to become more closely aligned.
How do lawyers at K&L Gates typically get involved in pro bono work?
Carleton Strouss: How our lawyers get involved in pro bono work is an evolutionary tale. In earlier days, you might think all pro bono work was local lawyers identifying local needs, mostly ad hoc. [And] that is still present. But people also start affiliations in providing services. By way of illustration, common themes that are present in a few of our offices include working with women and children at risk, assisting veterans, and helping refugees navigate immigration. We have an association with Habitat for Humanity, and we assist with closing documents. Aside from that we may get involved in matters through court appointments, typically criminal or appellate. As I mentioned, we have established ourselves as a global practice, and that increases collaboration in multiple practices as we help clients respond to issues that are global in nature. Also, our Government Affairs practice has grown and we’ve advocated for U.S. funding of projects aiding the underserved.
Can you tell me a little more about your global projects?
Carleton Strouss: Two of them involve the International Senior Lawyers Project. One of our senior environmental lawyers went to Tanzania to provide advice on appropriate environmental standards in developing mineral resources. Also, a senior partner headed to Liberia to help provide advice on criminal justice matters for the government.
Robert Mitchell: He’s in Monrovia (the capital of Liberia) now, training prosecutors and directly assisting in the prosecution of government corruption, which is a serious problem sapping development in many parts of the world.
What benefits does the pro bono program offer lawyers, especially around professional development?
Carleton Strouss: Our lawyer who went to Tanzania said his time there was the best experience of his professional life.
Robert Mitchell: Lawyers of all ages profit from making a difference in someone’s life. There is a lot of professional satisfaction in helping people who would otherwise not have any help.
Carleton Strouss: Pro bono is a wonderful way to promote integration and collaboration. Our attorneys can take advantage of the global reach of our firm’s platform. Many of them find it invigorating. A broad range of benefits is more tangible. Glenn Graner, who just stepped down as our CFO, made the business case for pro bono in an article he wrote several years ago. Among other things, Glenn analyzed the time firms spend on professional development. Pro bono is a nice supplement to that. It gives lawyers of all levels experience in areas that they otherwise never explore. Sometimes it’s a second or third year associate and sometimes it is a more seasoned lawyer who may have never had the opportunity to do a particular procedure. In my office, the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals keeps a roster of people willing to provide representation. Typically when the courts appoint pro bono counsel, they grant oral argument. This offers the opportunity for young lawyers to expand their professional opportunities and hear their voice in court.
What do you see as the main trends in law firm pro bono now?
Robert Mitchell: First, what Cart alluded to regarding the growth of projects with an international flavor. For example, our practice in D.C. has gotten involved with an NGO bringing clean water to parts of the Third World now lacking that. This complements work being done in other offices for refugees from war-torn nations. We are developing global citizens and global lawyers.
Second, collaborating with our clients. Many have chosen to get involved with needs in their community, and they want to work with outside counsel.
Third, we see fewer one-off projects. More firms are starting to develop programs to engage in a stream of projects, which helps take the load off legal services organizations. For example, we are currently working with an organization in regard to landlord/tenant issues. We need to provide the training so people can provide services quickly when called upon.
Lastly, there is a more conscious effort to employ pro bono to enhance skill development. For example, opportunities to appear in court are limited for a young lawyer; especially a young litigator who must acquire the skills essential for trial work, pro bono provides an opportunity.
How has technology improved the pro bono program at K&L Gates?
Carleton Strouss: It’s fascinating how technology has come to allow us to help move things along at a different tempo and with more breadth. Technology helps us in several ways. At the most basic, it helps us keep track of what we’re doing. We can also keep track of our lawyers’ interests, which helps us provide additional work in those areas as well as make opportunities available to lawyers in different locations. It also allows us to perform on an integrated basis. We can track matters, expand our capabilities, and broaden the reach of our program. Lawyers can be matched up. In our firm, we focus on inter-office projects and collaboration. Without the technology it would not, in many cases, be feasible to share resources.
Cart, how has the technology changed in ten years since you took on the role as Chair?
Carleton Strouss: If you assume we started at zero, it was a million percent increase. We now track our performance in a fairly detailed way, whereas before it was quite limited. If we didn’t use technology to collect data about the nature of our work, it would be difficult for us to quantify it or to track, from a qualitative perspective, what kind of work we did.
Do you see technology changing the way K&L provides pro bono services?
Robert Mitchell: The Pro Bono Institute recently pointed out that unmet legal needs often arise far from the cities where firms have offices. To address this need, legal service providers are beginning to use Skype to provide services. The growth of bandwidth is allowing lawyers to think about helping clients not physically close to us.
What do you look for in a nonprofit legal organization when you are thinking about a new partnership?
Robert Mitchell: The first thing I look for is its mission. If you want to enlist lawyers, you need mission that they can understand and get behind. I also look at how effectively they promote their mission. Providers of legal services must be effective at promoting their mission, because resources are limited. Also, I look at the follow-through after working with the organization. Few things would discourage a lawyer more than the ball being dropped. Just as we seek to be highly responsive to our clients, so we look for responsiveness in those with whom we partner.
Carleton Strouss: Some organizations are more user-friendly than others in terms of identifying projects. They give people opportunities in a structured way, so it does not feel like a feeding frenzy. The better people get at crossing the semi permeable membrane between need and resources, the more that nonprofit can distinguish itself and we can establish a good basis for collaboration.