By MARK CURRIDEN
Published: 21 February 2012 09:37 PM
When Marc Vockell was in private practice a decade ago, he struggled to get other lawyers to help with pro bono.
Now the head of litigation at Dell Inc., where he has significant influence on deciding which law firms are hired to represent the computer giant, he doesn’t get rejected anymore when he asks them to donate their services to the less privileged.
“Not only has Dell stepped up our pro bono efforts, we expect the law firms we hire to do so,” Vockell said. “Dell expects all of its vendors to be socially responsible. For law firms, that means pro bono.”
For decades, in-house corporate legal departments discouraged their staffs from getting involved in any legal matters not directly related to the business.
That attitude has changed dramatically during the last few years as corporate America has begun hiring younger general counsels from law firms that did pro bono work. Now most corporate legal departments have formal in-house pro bono programs. Some even require pro bono work of their staff attorneys.
Officials at legal services for the poor say corporate legal departments went from being a nonfactor only five years ago to being a driving force today.
“General counsels are doing a better job of making it clear that we encourage pro bono,” said AT&T Inc. general counsel Wayne Watts of Dallas. “It is important that our lawyers at AT&T do pro bono, and it is important that the law firms who work for us be committed to pro bono.”
Watts has established a committee of 18 AT&T lawyers to search for pro bono opportunities. His attorneys regularly staff the small business clinic and the criminal law clinic at Southern Methodist University’s Dedman Law School.
Several of AT&T’s pro bono projects are joint efforts with their outside counsel. And working jointly with outside firms can give those firms a foot in the door with AT&T.
“If a law firm approached me or a member of my team about a specific pro bono project, we will give it serious consideration,” Watts said. “And we get to see that lawyer in action.”
Susan Sanchez, senior counsel for Exxon Mobil Corp., said the energy company’s legal department has hired outside law firms after lawyers for the firms participated in joint pro bono projects.
“Law firms need to know that there’s a lot of good work that can come from this relationship,” said Sanchez, who handles labor, employment and torts litigation at the Irving-based company.
Pro bono advocates say that Charles Matthews, former general counsel for Exxon Mobil, and Cathy Lamboley, former general counsel with Shell Oil, supported in-house pro bono efforts in the late 1990s.
Then, in 2005, American Airlines general counsel Gary Kennedy became one of the first in the country to implement a formal pro bono program for the company’s 40 in-house lawyers. Two years ago, American took the unprecedented step of requiring all of its lawyers to do a minimum of 10 pro bono hours annually.
“Making it mandatory was a way of getting everyone to try it,” said American senior attorney Marjorie Powell, the department’s pro bono coordinator. “We felt some of our lawyers might have cold feet doing work outside their comfort zone, and we needed to give them that extra push.”
At the same time, American started encouraging its outside lawyers to join in pro bono efforts. The airline’s legal department teamed with lawyers from Haynes and Boone to assist dozens of military veterans and people seeking asylum. The company’s lawyers also worked with Hunton & Williams to conduct a “Wills for Seniors” clinic in 2010 and 2011.
In 2010 and 2011, American’s pro bono program became the buzz of corporate legal departments across the country. Last August, American invited 40 in-house lawyers from businesses across Texas to a continuing legal education clinic sponsored by Haynes and Boone.
One of the companies that attended was Exxon Mobil. The energy giant has been very aggressive in getting its outside firms to join its pro bono efforts.
For example, Exxon Mobil is teaming with Fulbright & Jaworski to act as corporate counsel for Avenue CDC, a nonprofit community development project in Houston. It partnered with Gardere Wynne Sewell to be corporate counsel for Agape Development Ministries, which offers life skills training and job placement to low-income residents of Houston’s Third Ward.
And Exxon Mobil joined Bracewell & Giuliani as corporate counsel for Casa de Esperanza, which provides residential, medical and psychological care to children in crisis. Exxon Mobil lawyers handle everything from drafting employment manuals to reviewing contracts.
“We want to work on projects to help the elderly, families and children,” said Sanchez, who heads pro bono efforts for the corporate legal department.
“We contacted Bracewell about Casa de Esperanza because the firm had a lawyer who served on Casa’s board,” Sanchez said. “We didn’t do much legal work with Bracewell, but this pro bono project has opened that door.”
Vockell says Dell regularly does pro bono work with Graves Dougherty Hearon & Moody and Vinson & Elkins in Austin, but they are open to any offers.
Vockell and V&E recently represented a woman who had experienced foundation problems with her house. Her insurance company paid for her to stay at a long-term stay hotel for a few weeks while her house was being repaired. The hotel said it would bill the insurance company directly.
But the hotel didn’t inform the woman when the insurance coverage ended. Instead, it presented her with a large bill at the end, which she couldn’t afford. The hotel sued in state court.
“Lawyers for the hotel chain thought they could use the defendant’s lack of knowledge and sophistication to obtain a fast and uncontested judgment,” Vockell said. “They were very surprised when she appeared in court with lawyers from Dell and V&E representing her.”
The hotel chain quickly agreed to settle the case favorably for the defendant.
More on this article and other law-related news can be found at www.texaslawbook.net.
How to find pro bono legal help:
The Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program offers legal advice and representation in a variety of civil matters for people who cannot afford a lawyer. For more information about Neighborhood Legal Clinics across the region, visit dallasbar.org.
Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law offers the Small Business Clinic, which provides free legal services to small businesses and nonprofit groups that can’t afford legal fees. Visit law.smu.edu or call 214-768-8299.