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Pro Bono: It’s All About Culture

By Melissa J. Anderson

Late last month, a Boeing 747 carrying the retired Enterprise space shuttle touched down at JFK airport in New York City. The shuttle had been acquired by the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, where it will ultimately end up this summer. Its arrival in New York was the result of the work of many people, including a pro bono team from the law firm Paul Hastings LLP.

“It was the coolest thing in the whole world,” said Paul Hastings real estate partner Robert Wertheimer. Nathalia Bernardo, real estate senior associate, agreed. She said, “Seeing the Enterprise come to New York, and all of that labor come to fruition, was amazing.”

According to Wertheimer, the firm has long history of active pro bono work – so much so that it’s become part of its culture.

Making Pro Bono Work

Paul Hastings has been advising the Intrepid museum for about ten years, Wertheimer said, and the firm also has relationships with many non-profits and public schools. “We have a track record of working with every community we’re involved in.”

“It allows lawyers to be connected to communities. And it’s also nice in terms of working on teams – people get to work with colleagues in a way that breaks down barriers,” he continued. “It’s consistent of our values of not being too full of ourselves and remembering what’s important.”

Bernardo added, “Every pro bono hour is treated exactly the same as an hour spent on a paying client. And there’s no max-out on pro bono hours for the year.”

Jamie Broder, CSR Partner at the firm and leader of the pro bono practice, says the firm had historically been active in the communities in which it operates since its founding in the 1950s, and is strongly committed to pro bono work. Several years ago, she became responsible for growing and developing the pro bono practice globally. “We wanted 100% participation by our attorneys,” she explained. Broder and her team work to get attorneys involved in pro bono cases. The team also seeks to establish relationships with pro bono organizations to enable the firm to attach pro bono cases and matters, including signature projects such as the firm’s work on the Enterprise.

She explained that pro bono work is important in helping associates hone their client relationship and business development skills, in addition to sharpening legal acumen. “It’s a great experience for lawyers who otherwise wouldn’t have first or second chair experience with other client work. And our attorneys seem to love it.”

The Enterprise team (Bernardo, Wertheimer, and two other lawyers, litigation partners Charles Patrizia and Robert Sherman) handled every aspect of the legal negotiations with NASA. Wertheimer described how much of the process was learning to speak NASA-ese, with its wealth of acronyms and “space talk.” Moreover, he continued, it was an opportunity for Bernardo to develop her own professional skills – handing clients and dealing with logistics, even making a trip to Florida to work with the space agency. “She had to learn to speak with people who aren’t used to giving things away,” he added.

Culture as Recruitment

Bernardo says that the firm mentions its commitment to pro bono work during recruitment conversations – discussing what kinds of work the firm does, how its system works, and whether people actually do it. “It’s nice to have people answer freely about this.”

Wertheimer cautioned, however, that he feels people are asking about it less, given the economic situation. “I think they’re worried about seeming less interested in doing paying work for the firm.”

But, he added, just because people aren’t asking about it as much, “it doesn’t mean they’re not doing it.” And, in fact, new lawyers (in New York State at least) are going to be doing a lot more of it, based on a recent announcement that applicants to the bar will need 50 volunteer hours of law service, beginning in 2013.

But the firm doesn’t exactly think of it as a recruitment tool, so much as a way of work, Wertheimer emphasized. “People want to come to Paul Hastings because it’s a top notch law firm with a great culture. Embedded within that is a commitment to pro bono in a meaningful way. It’s part of the whole gestalt of why you want to work here.”

He continued, “We want to work with people who are into what we’re into. It’s just part of the fabric of the firm.”

Bernardo added, “It’s something people look at as one piece of the overall puzzle when they evaluate our firm.”

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