As one of two in-house lawyers at an NGO with programmatic and fundraising activities across 25 countries, I am sometimes called upon to provide legal advice in an area of law and/or region of the world in which I have limited or no experience. As many of you fellow in-house counsel know, this is the magical privilege and excitement of being in-house legal counsel! Plenty of opportunities to learn and expand your professional horizons. But what to do when you’re at a cost-conscious nonprofit organization with a tight budget for outside counsel, and you need to secure sound legal advice to help your organization move forward? I urge you to invest some time into flexing and growing your pro bono networks to get the legal advice that you need.
Here are five steps you can take to enhance the prospects of finding pro bono legal assistance for your organization:
1. Make a list of pro bono projects
Focusing in on the type of legal help your organization needs will help you to find the right pro bono partner with intentionality and purpose. Plus, it will make you ready to pitch a project in the event you find yourself chatting with a prospective pro bono attorney.
What type of projects should you pitch? I’ve found that the most optimal pro bono projects are ones that do not involve tight deadlines, as it can take some time to get connected to the right pro bono partner. Here are some examples of successful pro bono projects I’ve completed in the past year:
- Employment law advice in multiple jurisdictions in Asia and the EU
- Corporate governance advice and assistance in South Africa
2. Nurture existing law firm and corporate partnerships
If your organization is lucky enough to have existing relationships with law firms or corporate legal teams who have provided pro bono assistance in the past, make the time to connect with them to nurture and strengthen these relationships. These pro bono attorneys have demonstrated a commitment to your organization’s mission and work in the past, and thus are a good place to start. When I first joined Room to Read a year and a half ago, I did an inventory of past pro bono providers and projects. After assessing provider capacity and our current/future needs, I made efforts to connect and continue many of these relationships. As a result, we received pro bono legal advice from existing partners on five separate matters in 2019.
Pro bono legal advice has enabled Room to Read to benefit children across the globe through its Literacy Program and Girls’ Education Program
3. Leverage board members
Reaching out to board members for help is an excellent way to expand your pro bono network. Last year, an attorney board member based in Hong Kong referred us to a colleague in London, who was able to provide us with the UK estate planning and probate law advice we needed. It’s good to remember that your organization’s board members may have a vast, collective global network, and that they want to help with furthering your organization’s mission.
4. Join Trustlaw
Trustlaw operates a global pro bono connection program that matches legal projects posted by NGOs and social enterprises with pro bono law firms and legal teams around the world. I first learned about Trustlaw through Humentum, and have found this free service to be an incredibly useful resource, particularly in jurisdictions where you may not know where to start looking for legal help. In 2019, I posted four Room to Read projects on Trustlaw’s web portal, and we were connected to pro bono help on three of those projects. We received excellent legal advice and service from all three legal teams. I am certain that I will seek out Trustlaw’s help again soon.
5. Go to attorney networking events
Now that you’re armed with your list of dream pro bono projects and you’re ready to find that matching pro bono partner, get out there and tell people about the great work your organization is doing. Go to your local ACC networking events, bar association events, alumni events, etc. and chat it up. It might even be fun.
TrustLaw is the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s global pro bono legal programme and a Humentum Industry Partner. TrustLaw connects high-impact NGOs and social enterprises working to create social and environmental change with the best law firms and corporate legal teams to provide them with free legal assistance. TrustLaw also produces groundbreaking legal research and offer innovative training courses worldwide. In 2019, TrustLaw and Humentum partnered to produce a series of webinars on discrimination and harassment in the workplace and continue to develop tools for the sector.