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H. Ward Classen: In-house pro bono is not an oxymoron

The ongoing recession has increased the need for pro bono legal services. Once the purview of large law firms, pro bono activities are alive and growing at in-house legal departments. Gone are the days when corporate legal departments sat on the sidelines while large law firms conducted the heavy lifting. As in-house legal departments have grown in size and structure, social awareness within these departments has moved to the forefront.

This change has been driven by many factors. First, the economic downturn has focused attention on the unserved legal needs of the community and the increased demands placed on existing providers of pro bono services. Second, many bar associations, including specialty bar associations such as the Association of Corporate Counsel, have created and emphasized pro bono programs. The requirement that Maryland lawyers, including in-house counsel, report their pro bono activities on an annual basis has caused many lawyers to reassess the extent of their pro bono activities. Finally, many corporations understand that their commitment to the community goes beyond charitable giving to include volunteering its employees’ time. Corporate counsel have also embraced pro bono activities, finding their efforts to be personally rewarding and fulfilling.

Litigation matters have traditionally constituted a significant portion of pro bono services. Such matters rarely are the forte of in-house counsel, but in-house lawyers have found many ways to contribute. Lawyers practicing real estate law, corporate law and employment law can provide valuable assistance to individuals as well as charitable organizations.

In-house counsel may be cautious of taking on pro bono matters because most companies do not provide legal malpractice insurance coverage for their attorneys. However, organizations such as the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service and the Foreclosure Prevention Pro Bono Project do provide some coverage for lawyers who volunteer through their groups.

In addition to providing legal services, in-house counsel have supported other worthy causes such as “Street Law” and Habitat for Humanity. This fall, 20 lawyers from the Baltimore chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel spent a day rehabbing a house in Winchester-Sandtown. In addition, in-house counsel serve on the boards of many local nonprofit associations and provide free legal advice. Finally, many in-house counsel are able to harness the financial resources of their employers to direct financial donations to deserving organizations.

While in-house pro bono efforts will likely never garner the publicity of a large law firm defending a wrongly convicted death row inmate, in-house counsel fill a void in the community and help alleviate a demonstrated need in the community. I encourage all in-house counsel to make the effort to provide pro bono services in 2011 and contact me if they need assistance in identifying an opportunity to do so.

H. Ward Classen is Deputy General Counsel of Computer Sciences Corporation and can be reached at [email protected] The views expressed herein are those of Mr. Classen and not those of Computer Sciences Corporation.