Volunteer Work Becomes a Priority for Many Professionals

Sep 21, 2012 3:40 PM ET

Next year New York will become the first state to require lawyers to perform 50 hours of pro bono work before being admitted to the state bar. Legal professionals already have made volunteer work a priority.
More than 1,500 area attorneys provide volunteer legal services through the Volunteer Legal Services Project of Monroe County Inc. A non-profit program, VLSP offers free legal help to low-income residents facing non-criminal problems. It has seen tremendous growth since it began in 1981, after the Monroe County Bar Association received a one-time grant of $40,000 to develop it, and it now operates with a $640,000 annual budget.
"The lives of low-income members of our community are immeasurably improved," says Linda Kostin, pro bono coordinator at VLSP. "In some cases lives are actually saved, as in the case of domestic violence victims assisted with divorce, child support and custody issues."
Pro bono legal services generally are provided to persons of limited means and to the civil and charitable organizations that serve them. Clients must be residents of Monroe County and meet federal poverty income guidelines. Legal representation is offered in a variety of areas, including housing, trusts and estates, litigation, immigration, real estate, health and business organizations.
VLSP and its team of skilled volunteer lawyers also work to relieve the burden of serious civil legal problems including bankruptcy, foreclosure and debt. In addition, a client who faces terminal illness, such as HIV/AIDS or cancer, is able to receive assistance through the drafting of a will, health care proxy and power of attorney. Parents can find peace of mind by having a guardian appointed for their children.
"Providing legal services to those who would not otherwise have access is a benefit in and of itself," says Sheila Gaddis, diversity partner at Hiscock & Barclay LLP. "Beyond that, our code of professional responsibility encourages every attorney to provide pro bono services. Not only are you serving the public, but you are providing a wonderful learning experience to the attorneys."
Hiscock & Barclay is projected to donate $700,000 in pro bono services in 2012, an average of close to 60 hours and more than $8,000 annually per attorney, Gaddis says.
Harter Secrest & Emery LLP has a pro bono policy that strongly encourages attorneys to donate at least 25 hours each year to such work.
This is a standard that the firm meets each year on average, says Frank Novak, partner and pro bono coordinator at Harter Secrest & Emery. A number of the firm's attorneys have been awarded the annual William E. McKnight Volunteer Service Award and the New York State Bar Association President's Pro Bono Service Attorney Award. Internally, the firm holds an annual awards ceremony to recognize attorneys who have made substantial pro bono contributions. In addition, the firm strives to raise awareness during a pro bono week in October. Pro bono cases are typically funded by the firm, Novak says. In some cases a community legal assistance provider may cover some of the costs.
"As a private practice, our attorneys have minimum billable hour requirements, and we count pro bono hours against those minimum requirements," Novak says. "Therefore the dollar value of the work donated is substantial."
As part of a professional development program at Hiscock & Barclay, all associates, counsel and paralegals are eligible for credit for approved pro bono work. Attorneys qualify for up to 75 billable hours and fee credits annually, while paralegals who support pro bono work qualify for up to 20.
Hiscock & Barclay has a diversity partner in each office to review pro bono requests from community legal service providers and place each referral with the appropriate firm attorney.
"Pro bono opportunities are received through the federal courts, VLSP, Charity Corps and relationships we have with community members," Novak says. "VLSP, for example, refers cases on a broad range of topics, including divorce, child support, visitation, Habitat for Humanity home closings, immigration cases, collection cases, name change cases, tax cases, unemployment insurance cases and wills, estates and guardianship cases."
Hiscock & Barclay recognizes an ongoing need for representation in Family Court, which will require additional training and mentoring, Gaddis says. In addition, the firm strives to focus on volunteering its services to military veterans.
Pro bono work is not limited to the legal profession.
Tax, assurance and advisory professionals at Ernst &Young LLP have a corporate responsibility strategy that is focused on education, entrepreneurship and the environment. A majority of pro bono work at Ernst & Young is designed to make education more accessible for underserved youths, celebrate and assist aspiring entrepreneurs, and reduce environmental impact, both internally and externally.
"Studies show that skills-based volunteerism is 10 times more valuable than a pair of hands," says Todd Trehan, managing partner at Ernst & Young in Rochester. "So whenever possible, we encourage our people to use their professional skills when volunteering. While the firm is generous with its financial resources, we know that our greatest resource is our people." 
Pro bono work at Ernst &Young includes lending resources to organizations like the United Way; helping local school districts to operate more efficiently; advising chambers of commerce or boards of trade that assist in a city's economic development; engaging in special projects designed to help women and minority entrepreneurs and providing complimentary tax preparation for the economically disadvantaged.
Local offices of Ernst &Young have the autonomy to select pro bono investments, and often they focus on using their skills to educate and inform.
While pro bono service allows volunteers to meet professional responsibilities and can provide experience and education to young professionals, it can also be of value outside the workplace.
"There is benefit in the feeling of satisfaction that comes from helping the less fortunate," VLSP's Kostin says.