...a law firm and an in-house legal department collaborating on a pro bono project builds a deeper, more meaningful relationship

I had the pleasure of attending California Minority Counsel Program’s (CMCP) latest event in San Francisco, Doing Good to Build Your Network: Successful Law Firm Corporate Legal Department Collaboration on Pro Bono Projects. Thanks to a panel of in-house counsel from HP, Uber and Dropbox and a partner from Farella Braun + Martel, I walked away with a strong realization that pro bono and community service is a valuable differentiator for law firms. 

Why Pro Bono Is A Valuable Differentiator 

Law firms have mastered hosting client events, whether they are fancy networking receptions or casual advance screenings of movie blockbusters. Client appreciation events or CLE seminars are classic business development strategies to form new relationships and develop stronger ties with clients and prospects. I found the presentation hosted by CMCP to be a breath of fresh air in approaching new ideas for business development. Having a law firm and an in-house legal department collaborate on a pro bono project builds a deeper, more meaningful relationship. 

As lawyers, we have a special training that allows us to help under-served communities where they need it the most. These are communities that can’t afford a lawyer and not having the right advice could mean losing access to basic necessities. If we are able to use our specialized training to do good – we should. 

...as lawyers, we have a special training that allows us to help under-served communities where they need it the most

For associates and junior in-house counsel, pro bono projects also provide an opportunity to get involved in leadership roles at an early stage in their careers. Taking initiative to run a pro bono project can set associates apart internally as well as provide professional development training as they learn to apply negotiation or trial skills in real-life situations. 

The Business Case for Establishing a Pro Bono Initiative

Aside from the moral imperative to volunteer in the community, these decisions usually come down to whether it makes business sense. Here are some reasons identified by the panel to create the business case for pro bono projects:

1. Corporate in-house legal departments are looking at law firms who give back to the community as a differentiator when making outside counsel hiring decisions. 

2. It provides the in-house legal department, the company they work for, the law firm, and the non-profit partner an opportunity to gain publicity from the project/initiative. Generating media coverage was identified as a way to provide value to corporate clients because it would create positive buzz for their company in their community. 

3. Because many of the pro bono projects are within minority and underrepresented communities, it provides attorneys with diverse perspectives, thus providing concrete examples to support your diversity and inclusion values. Bringing together teams to do something positive in the community fosters a more inclusive environment for your teams. 

4. Corporate in-house legal departments do not have the time or resources to coordinate a pro bono project. Law firms take for granted the resources they have e.g. administrative staff, copy room, marketing, etc. and can use it to provide value to their clients. In-house departments that are part of larger corporations have community service and pro bono mandates, so if law firms can take the lead on coordinating, it’s another opportunity for law firms to make their client’s lives easier

5. When clients talk about their outside counsel needing to “understand my business,” engaging in a pro bono activity can be one way to do so. Uncovering that your client has community service mandates or are given paid hours to volunteer, allows you to support the company’s values and business goals. 

Best Practices for Coordinating a Pro Bono Project

The panel then transitioned to discussing best practices for running a collaborative pro bono project. Here are some tips to get you started!

1. Find an opportunity where attorneys can devote a set number of hours and provide brief advice to clients. It’s difficult for both in-house and outside attorneys to take on ongoing representation due to lack of time or billable requirements.  

2. Have a conversation with all attorneys that would be volunteering their time to find out what type of project they would like to work on. The experience is more enjoyable when the group is passionate about the cause. 

3. Find a non-profit partner whom you trust and will be easy to work with. The non-profit partner is essential because they will have the majority of the resources to set-up the clinic (e.g. translators) and provide access to the people who need the advice. 

4. Work as a coalition (law firm, in-house department, and non-profit partner) so you have better chances of accomplishing what you want. It allows each partner to share the burden and get more done. 

5. Use public relations to your benefit. Corporations want positive media exposure, so law firms should create a public relations plan and use it as a way to provide additional value to the in-house legal department and the company they work for. Take pictures! 

6. Focus on a broad reach of people that the project impacts and involves e.g. lawyers, paralegals, legal assistants, or other staff. Involve other stakeholders such as Congress or other government members to show value of the project. 

7.  Listen for opportunities. When it is client-driven, it does make it easier, but also pay attention to non-profit organizations that host clinics or have a call for volunteers. 

8. Measure ROI – both objectively and subjectively. How many relationships were strengthened? What was the level of satisfaction from the associates? How many clients were you able to help? How many volunteers participated? How many hours were donated? How did it affect the culture at the firm? 

9. Publicize any and all results internally and externally to ensure its support. A combination of objective results, a meaningful story and pictures will result in positive exposure. 

10. Keep the attorneys motivated by showing why it is valuable, reward them for their time (e.g. paid hours or billable credit), and get management involved.

Thank you to California Minority Counsel Program (CMCP) for another successful program, to CMCP’s Executive Director Robert White for moderating, and the following panelists for their excellent insights: 

  • Amanda Hairston, Partner, Farella Braun + Martel LLP
  • Elena DiMuzio, Senior Legal Counsel - Litigation and Regulatory, Dropbox
  • Willie Hernandez, Vice President & Deputy General Counsel, Hewlett Packard Enterprise
  • Angela Johnson, Litigation Counsel, Uber Technologies Inc.



[Sheenika S. Gandhi leads the development, oversight and implementation of Payne & Fears LLP’s strategic marketing and business development objectives. She is a strong project manager, creative thinker, and a trusted advisor for the firm’s attorneys and management. Prior to joining Payne & Fears LLP, Sheenika led the digital marketing strategy for five years at an AmLaw200 firm. Sheenika received her J.D. from California Western School of Law and is a licensed California attorney. She is an active volunteer with the Legal Marketing Association, the leading association for legal marketing, as Vice-Chair of the Southern California Local Steering Committee.]