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Initiative aimed at tackling poverty

|Written By David Dias

The first ever attempt to organize corporate pro bono work in the province is finally underway, with the launch this week of a new legal clinic by Pro Bono Ontario that’s designed specifically for corporate lawyers and the types of clients that desperately need their help.

Lynn Burns says she has been sitting down with senior corporate partners on the pro bono committees of major law firms, and she expects enthusiastic buy-in.

The Corporate Law Summary Advice Clinic — operating two days a week out of PBO’s downtown Toronto office — will connect low-income clients with lawyers who can help steer them in the right direction.

These clients might help small businesses looking to incorporate, struggling artists looking to secure their intellectual property, or even charities that just want to better understand their legal risks. The point is not to provide end-to-end legal service but rather preliminary legal guidance.

For Pro Bono Ontario, which is best known for managing programs for litigants, the initiative is meant to tackle poverty by creating economic opportunities for the disadvantaged. But it’s also a way to give corporate lawyers the kinds of opportunities that, until now, have been mainly enjoyed by litigators.

“We’ve done a pretty good job of getting litigation departments involved in pro bono, but it takes a little more effort to get the corporate lawyers involved,” says PBO executive director Lynn Burns. “It’s a little more difficult to find opportunities for them.”

For in-house lawyers, in particular, the barriers to pro bono have been practically insurmountable. Even with management’s blessing and the requisite malpractice coverage, internal counsel often struggle to find good volunteering opportunities.

Nissan Canada general counsel Fernando Garcia says in-house lawyers have typically shied away from pro bono work because it so often falls outside their area of expertise.

“I’ve heard people talk about pro bono, and people say, ‘I’m a corporate-commercial lawyer. What the hell am I going to do for people with immigration issues or wills? Those are things I’m not knowledgeable enough about, so I’m not within my comfort zone. I really want to make a contribution, I want to do something, but I can’t.’”

When they do manage to find work that’s within their area of expertise, it’s often a result of a scattered search through academia or advocacy organizations. “Some of the universities have programs or advice centres where people can go in and give advice,” says Garcia.

“Communities as well — I know the Latin American community, for example, has some centres for Spanish-speaking people, places like that where people who need help can go.”

One such immigration-focused group, Connect Legal, happened to be one of the catalysts for PBO’s new corporate law clinic, after the groups merged earlier this year. Burns credits the merger for giving the group the push it needed to enter corporate law.

“When we amalgamated, we wanted to really make corporate pro bono a priority for us,” says Burns, “and so we started looking at serving artists and serving the new immigrant entrepreneur piece that Connect Legal had been doing.”

But while Connect Legal had been matching volunteers with clients, the new initiative will follow the clinic model, which allows volunteers to commit a set amount of hours for early-stage counsel, without the obligation of carrying a client through to resolution. It also conveniently includes malpractice coverage through LawPro.

“We just thought that this model made the most sense, so that people know what their time commitment is, especially for in-house corporate lawyers,” says Burns. “We’re trying to create opportunities that are tailored to their expertise, their interests, and that fit into their busy schedule.”

With more than 100 appointments already booked over the next two months, demand is swelling — although PBO says it isn’t done yet shaking the branches of the corporate legal world for potential volunteers.

Burns has been sitting down with senior corporate partners on the pro bono committees of major law firms, and she anticipates enthusiastic buy-in.

“It’s just one of those things where we haven’t been able to go to them in the past and say, ‘Look we can take 15 or 20 of your lawyers for this clinic.’ Now we’re going to them with opportunities that are right in their wheelhouse.”

Joanne Gilbert, a third-year lawyer at Keyser Mason Ball LLP in Toronto, says that law firms such as hers are increasingly encouraging lawyers to do pro bono work. “My firm actually has given me, from day one of practice, the opportunity to get involved and to make my own connections and build my own network,” she says.

Gilbert says that she’s looking forward to the kinds of pro bono opportunities that the clinic will afford transactional lawyers like her.

“The obvious volunteering opportunities for young lawyers are in the litigation setting,” she says. “Well, if you’re a transactional lawyer, you’re not really involved in the adversarial context, but new businesses do require help, so it’s a good opportunity for transactional lawyers to give back to the community.”

Pro bono work also offers young lawyers the chance to build client-intake and business-development skills. “It’s a great way for younger lawyers to have a hand at client-intake and early-stage advice. It’s kind of a nice way for younger lawyers to get their feet wet.”

Even for in-house lawyers, there can be a business-development incentive. Nissan Canada’s Garcia points out that, for internal lawyers looking to move back into private practice, pro bono work can offer a launch pad.

“Small-business owners become large businesses, and then at some point those networks are critical,” he says.

“I’m seeing a lot of people going from in-house back to private practice. Well, if you go back to private practice, now you have a network of small businesses that used you before and are now successful. So now you have a client base. It’s a good client-building initiative as well.”

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