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Pursuing pro bono in-house

Lawyers shouldn’t erase volunteer time from their personal docket when they go in-house.
|Written By Jennifer Brown
Pursuing pro bono in-house

When lawyers leave private practice and go in-house many may feel they are no longer easily able to pursue pro bono work, but the reality is corporate and public sector lawyers have skills that are in demand. There also appears to be growing interest from the in-house bar in pursuing pro bono activities.

After some queries from its members last year, the Canadian Corporate Counsel Association struck a committee to evaluate ways to make it easier for in-house lawyers to explore their pro bono options, says Lawna Hurl, legal counsel with Niska Gas Storage Partners LLC in Calgary. “There’s kind of an assumption when you leave private practice that you leave the possibility of doing pro bono and the cynic’s take is you don’t really need to do it for your career anymore,” says Hurl. “But even after I went in-house, I still did evening clinics at Calgary Legal Guidance — matters that aren’t considered super-heavy, complicated legal work. You’re really listening to somebody’s story and directing them to the next step.”

Hurl is chairwoman of the CCCA’s recently formed pro bono committee and is also past–chairwoman of Calgary Legal Guidance, where she has volunteered since 2003. She joined its board in 2008 and now provides more corporate-related assistance to the organization. She says the CCCA is trying to help determine things like insurance requirements for in-house lawyers looking to do pro bono work and what the opportunities are out there for them.

Lee Cutforth has always felt a duty to continue pro bono work even after leaving private practice and has done so with Lethbridge Legal Guidance. When he made the move last year to an in-house role as Alberta’s first Property Rights Advocate, he said there was no question he would continue to volunteer his time. Cutforth, who was in private practice for 27 years, was initially drawn to pro bono as a means of doing some community service. “It’s a good opportunity to contribute to the community and fill a need, and there is a growing issue in our profession about access to justice and so it is a way to help with that problem as well,” he says.

Lethbridge Legal Guidance has a fairly high participation rate among lawyers in the community. “I think on a pro-rated basis it’s the highest in Alberta for the number of lawyers who end up participating in pro bono,” says Cutforth. Because the participation rate in the clinic is so high, Cutforth’s involvement in the clinic is about four to six times a year. The clinic runs weekly in Lethbridge in the evening. One has started in Medicine Hat as well as clinics farther west. Senior and junior lawyers as well as in-house counsel contribute their time.

The matters Cutforth has dealt with are “pretty garden-variety” — issues including family law, some civil claims, and landlord-tenant concerns make up the bulk of the work. The role is more one of triage as clients come in and are given a half-hour consultation and advised of what their rights are in a situation and what steps should be taken next. “If it turns out they need representation in court then we act as a gatekeeper and provide a referral to the staff lawyer to help them,” says Cutforth. “As lawyers we may see the issues these people have as garden-variety but to them it’s the most important thing they have going on at that moment and that’s the other thing that makes it worthwhile. For the people coming to see us it’s important and we’re fulfilling an important service.”

When Hurl joined the board of Calgary Legal Guidance she was transitioning from working at a private firm to an in-house role at Chevron Canada Resources. She quickly realized they could use her assistance in areas more germane to what an in-house counsel does. That was also the case for lawyer Tony Wong, who, in 2008 when he was still a securities regulator working for British Columbia’s Securities Commission, decided he wanted to put his corporate governance skills to work on a volunteer basis. “In my job I was dealing less with people and real issues and wanted to volunteer my skills but couldn’t do it on a public company board. I soon realized most not-for-profits really value the skills lawyers bring to the table and I think lawyers have a lot to offer these kinds of organizations.”

In February, Wong became general counsel and corporate secretary of Prophecy Coal Corp. in Vancouver and continues to volunteer his time as vice chairman of the board of the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, known colloquially as the Cultch. In January, along with Cultch executive director Heather Redfern and staff, Wong helped successfully argue before Vancouver City council to amend a city sign bylaw so corporate sponsorship could be permitted on the centre’s signage. After a public hearing, the city, which owns the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, approved the Cultch’s application to put West Coast Reduction’s name on the marquee. It meant a $2-million donation to the centre. “It was hugely rewarding,” says Wong who attends about one board meeting a month for Cultch in addition to spending time on their corporate governance needs such as preparing for the annual general meeting.

Last year, members of the Association of Corporate Counsel’s Ontario chapter began a project called “In Your Corner” aimed at helping foster families looking to formally adopt children they had raised. A meeting between PBLO and Catholic Children’s Aid revealed the legal department at the agency was getting a number of requests from adoption workers asking for help in finalizing adoptions for some of the former Crown wards who had just turned 18. In July 2012, an initial training session on adoption law took place in Toronto with the 35 ACC Ontario members who volunteered. It was led by a lawyer PBLO works with from the Catholic Children’s Aid Society.

The pro bono program saw in-house counsel help foster families complete necessary paperwork to finalize the adoptions. The program saved the families money: a typical adoption can cost between $8,000 and $12,000. Phase two of the ACC Ontario’s efforts will see them help non-profit organizations with more business law issues such as employment, intellectual property, and commercial contracts.

Hurl says there’s a misconception of what constitutes pro bono work and there are many opportunities to help where an in-house lawyer wouldn’t be required to make substantive decisions in the areas of criminal and family law.

That means those who have spent a career doing M&A work shouldn’t be discouraged from considering pro bono. “So often, when people think about pro bono they think about homeless advocacy, immigration, landlord-tenant, and family law,” says Hurl. “In the work I’ve done recently for Calgary Legal Guidance I’ve written policy, contracts, some guidance on board governance and there is a lot of value in that. People forget all these not-for-profits delivering front line services also have legal needs that aren’t obvious.”

Pro Bono Law Ontario has also been working with in-house counsel from RBC for seven years providing a range of services including assistance to unaccompanied minors who arrive in Canada at Pearson airport with no documentation, usually from war-torn countries. The challenge for in-house can be employer approval. While some, like RBC, have active internal pro bono programs others don’t always approve, says Hurl. “Sometimes you have to justify it to your employer. Some companies encourage it but unfortunately others have cultures that dictate if you’re not working on the company stuff you shouldn’t be working on anything else,” she says.

There are also development advantages to doing pro bono. Working in-house, Cutforth says he finds himself becoming more of a generalist but doing the pro bono work allows him to get exposure to the needs of individuals as opposed to groups of people. “I think that’s good for your own perspective but can also help sharpen your skills if you’re exposed to a different area of law you don’t see every day,” he says. “I think we owe a duty of service to the community but even in a practical way it helps broaden an in-house counsel’s experience.”

Other concerns have kept public sector lawyers from doing very much volunteer legal work but Crown counsel in three provinces are now able to carry out pro bono work with far less exposure to legal claims and less risk of running into conflicts of interest. Three year-long pilot schemes allowing Department of Justice lawyers to volunteer at legal clinics in British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario received official approval in March. Lisa Blais, president of the Association of Justice Counsel, says her organization “applauds the attempt to increase access to justice” and looks forward to the program being expanded.

Crown counsel can only volunteer for departmentally approved activities and have traditionally been restricted in the level of insurance coverage they can obtain for pro bono work. It has also been difficult for government lawyers to rule out potential conflicts of interests, due to the enormous scope of legal cases involving the federal government. Under the new policy, lawyers will be insured to work (outside of their regular work hours) at the three legal clinics in Vancouver, Edmonton, and Ottawa, on specific areas of law screened by the government to minimize conflicts.


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