Washington Lawyer

From the President: Putting Your Professional Experience to Good Use

From Washington Lawyer, May 2011

By Ronald S. Flagg

flaggAt this time of year, speakers and columnists commonly issue clarion calls for new graduates to use their talents and new degrees to benefit their communities. I make a similar request today, although directed to a more mature audience—members of our bar with many years of professional experience.

Roughly 20,000 of our active members in the Washington metropolitan area have been practicing law for more than 25 years. We have worked successfully in a wide variety of niches, including large firms, small firms, solo practices, government, academia, and nonprofit organizations. Collectively, we have tried thousands of cases, argued thousands of appeals, drafted thousands of agreements, written countless articles and books, and helped more than a million clients. And yet, even with this impressive body of work behind us, some of the most professionally rewarding, important, and impactful years of our careers may still lie ahead. For example, if even a small percentage of our most experienced lawyers were to devote substantial time to the roughly two dozen legal services providers in our city, literally thousands of additional people in our community could be served annually.

With these thoughts in mind, the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program, D.C. Access to Justice Commission, and 11 founding law firms last year launched the Senior Attorney Initiative for Legal Services (SAILS) Project to infuse much-needed resources into the public interest legal community by harnessing the vast experience of the many talented senior lawyers at D.C. law firms, government agencies, and corporate legal departments. The SAILS Project, chaired by Marc L. Fleischaker, partner and chair emeritus at Arent Fox LLP, was founded on the premise that by tapping this under-used resource, we can significantly narrow the justice gap that has only expanded with the downturn in the economy.

At its inception, the SAILS Project reached out in two directions. First, we contacted legal services providers in the District to identify areas of unmet legal needs in our community where an infusion of experienced lawyers could have a major impact, as well as additional infrastructure or support they might need to use such additional resources most effectively.

Second, participating law firms were asked to institutionalize a senior lawyers project at their firms to build a structure and culture that encourages and supports experienced lawyers to undertake pro bono work. Though each firm will establish a program that is appropriate to its individual setting, the goal is to develop models that other firms could also consider to reduce barriers and create incentives for experienced lawyers to do more pro bono work and create a “pro bono path” as they transition from full-time billable work. In its focus on institutionalizing such policies, the SAILS Project differs from prior efforts in other major cities that have tended to focus on individual lawyers. We have learned from these prior efforts that the following criteria are essential to the success and sustainability of any firm’s senior lawyers project:

  • Ensuring that these experienced lawyers remain connected with their firms and have access to firm resources to support their pro bono efforts (including office space, administrative support, and legal support);
  • Reviewing, refining, and institutionalizing, as appropriate, policies to ensure that senior lawyers who choose this path are supported; and
  • Working in partnership with the legal services providers or public interest organizations to address urgent legal needs.

Many of the participating firms already have taken steps along these lines. For example, one firm that has billable-hour targets for partners during a formal phase-down period to retirement has adopted a policy that SAILS Project pro bono work will count toward those targets. Another firm that does not have a structured phase-down process or mandatory retirement age, and has had a number of senior lawyers remain at the firm doing significant pro bono work, made that option more universally known and the process more transparent. The firm sent a notice to every lawyer in its D.C. office, from the law school class of 1976 and earlier, informing them about the SAILS Project and inviting them to meet for an informal lunch with the firm’s pro bono partner to explore options. Many partners responded by coming to lunch or contacting the pro bono partner privately.

The SAILS Project, in partnership with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, McDermott Will & Emery LLP, and Arent Fox, already has developed a program of expanded outreach and assistance for homeless and low-income veterans. The new program will include outreach by the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, particularly to veterans who are homeless, and education, advice, and representation by lawyers from the clinic, Legal Aid, Arent Fox, and McDermott in a wide variety of areas, including veterans benefits, child custody, domestic violence, public benefits, landlord and tenant, and home foreclosure.

D.C. lawyers have long led the nation in their commitment to pro bono work and their support of the public interest legal community and the clients it serves. The SAILS Project has the potential to become a national model, producing best practices and creating thought leaders on how to marshal the extraordinary resources represented by our bar’s most experienced members. It assuredly will significantly expand urgently needed resources into the public interest community and make a rapid and palpable impact on the availability of legal help for the most vulnerable members of our community.

Reach Ronald S. Flagg at rflagg@dcbar.org.