Pro Bono Spotlight: Group Connects Transactional Attorneys with Pro Bono Projects
by Scott Challinor
t a wedding several years ago, I found myself in a conversation with a fellow transactional attorney who had recently made the first court appearance of his then five-year-old career on a pro bono matter. Because The Docket is a family publication, I’ll say he described the experience as "unpleasant."
For some transactional attorneys, the prospect of pro bono work — while appealing to participate in because of the impact that can be made — can induce panic and anxiety over the idea of entering a courtroom, a venue many transactional attorneys have little experience or interest in. What is important to know, though, is that not all pro bono work has to be done in front of a judge.
For those transactional attorneys who are looking to make a difference and work within their area of expertise, the Colorado Pro Bono Legal Group offers opportunities with nonprofit organizations in need of non-litigation legal assistance that fits transactional attorneys’ areas of expertise. An email is sent at least monthly to interested attorneys that outlines specific issues or projects of pre-vetted Colorado nonprofit organizations in need of legal assistance.
The Colorado Pro Bono Legal Group is a joint project of the Colorado Lawyers Committee and the Colorado Nonprofit Association. Formed in 2009, the group has placed more than 150 projects with attorney volunteers.
"I consider that very successful," said Peter Schwartz, the group’s coordinator and a partner in the Finance and Acquisitions Group of Davis Graham & Stubbs.
Many know Schwartz because he circulates the group’s emails. However, he is quick to note that he is just one spoke in the wheel. Among the others are Colorado Lawyers Committee Executive Director Connie Talmage and Colorado Nonprofit Association Program and Development Coordinator Rebekah Cardonsky, along with the 70-plus recipients of the group’s emails, including law firm pro bono coordinators, such as Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck Pro Bono Partner Lauren Schmidt.
Schwartz describes his actual duties more like "playing Match.com" — he facilitates the alignment of interested attorneys with nonprofits requiring legal help.
"We streamline the information that comes in from the nonprofits ... basic information about the nonprofit, and any specific issues they have concerns about," Schwartz said.
From this information, they put together a blurb that anonymously introduces the nonprofit and the legal issue it’s facing.
"That piece is what I then send out to a growing list of attorneys," said Schwartz, who then fields responses.
Cardonsky fields requests and works with the association’s nonprofit members to educate them about possible legal problems. Nonprofits then fill out a questionnaire, which forms the basis for the subsequent vetting process. In deciding whether to pass the issue on to its pool of volunteers, the group considers the legal issue, whether litigation may be involved, whether the issue involves the nonprofit entity (versus a person affiliated with the entity), and the nonprofit’s financial need. Specifically, nonprofits with operating budgets in excess of $500,000 are excluded.
"We had major discussions in the beginning about not competing with or taking work away from attorneys who represent nonprofits for a living," Talmage said. As a result, the group drew the financial threshold so that only nonprofits that clearly cannot otherwise obtain legal services are served by the group.
The benefits to nonprofits are significant. When a legal complaint arrives in the mail, Schwartz said, the need for legal assistance is unambiguous. However, many association members do not have a line-item in their budget for more routine legal fees, or are not aware of the need for ongoing, routine legal counsel. And, some nonprofits are overly optimistic about the scope of a board member’s legal expertise — what Talmage calls the "take the zoning question to the estate lawyer" problem.
Cardonsky seeks to educate association members on the importance of being proactive about potential legal issues, which can translate to long-term savings.
"For us, it’s about taking a proactive approach to maintaining legal needs, instead of waiting until it becomes a litigation issue, where costs are obviously going to be higher," she said.
In this regard, the group also co-sponsors — along with the Colorado Association for Corporate Counsel, the Pro Bono Institute, the Community Resource Center, and local law firms — an annual half-day "Clinic-in-a-Box," where in-house attorneys and private practice transactional attorneys provide nonprofits with a comprehensive "legal audit," which seeks to apprise them of a range of potential issues.
By addressing legal issues before they metastasize into litigation, a costlier and more burdensome prospect, nonprofits can maintain their legal health, reducing costs going forward.
The benefits to participating attorneys and firms are equally great. Traditionally, pro bono legal work has been associated with litigation, so many transactional attorneys don’t know where to find pro bono work in their field, creating what Schwartz calls "search costs." The aim of the group is to package and streamline these opportunities for interested attorneys and firms, maximizing time spent rendering assistance, and minimizing time spent seeking projects. According to Schmidt, the group’s efforts have created a "solid pipeline" for such projects.
Rule 6.1 of the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct suggests attorneys participate in 50 hours of pro bono legal services annually; likewise, the Colorado Supreme Court has worked with firms and organizations to commit to meeting this goal through an annual pledge.
"You either get recognized for meeting the commitment or not, and the court makes the list public," Schmidt said, adding that she feels this has created an increased level of accountability regarding pro bono work.
As a pro bono partner with Brownstein, Schmidt devotes half of her time as the firm’s pro bono coordinator and the other half running her litigation practice. A common refrain she hears from transactional attorneys is, "I never want to see the inside of a courtroom" — and that grows stronger the longer an attorney has been practicing.
However, with the opportunities provided by the group and the nature of them — projects’ limited scope fit in well with transactional attorneys’ schedules — the firm’s attorneys have taken on more than 50 of the 150-plus projects the group has placed. This "uptick" in transactional pro bono work, has helped Brownstein to meet its pro bono pledge, Schmidt said. D
Scott Challinor is a tax attorney with Davis Graham & Stubbs LLP who specializes in ERISA and exempt organizations. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.