Members of Amazon’s legal department have provided pro bono legal services to guests at a Seattle-based homeless shelter, and they have worked with the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project to rectify wrongful convictions.
They have also teamed with the Davis Wright Tremaine law firm and the Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) nonprofit to provide pro bono representation to unaccompanied immigrant children seeking legal approval to remain in the U.S.
In sum, more than 700 Amazon attorneys and legal professionals across the globe have volunteered upwards of 38,000 hours since the company’s legal department formally launched its pro bono program in 2014.
The program was created under the leadership of David Zapolsky, Amazon’s SVP, general counsel and secretary, and the scale of its reach was detailed in a report the e-commerce giant issued during national pro bono week at the end of October.
“I am incredibly proud of the global program we have created and the hundreds of Amazon legal team members who continually contribute their time and talents to this meaningful pro bono work,” Zapolsky said in the report.
Zapolsky was recently joined on an Association of Corporate Counsel panel by Cisco EVP and Chief Legal Officer Dev Stahlkopf in which they shared how legal departments can provide opportunities for their team members to engage in pro bono work.
The discussion at the ACC’s annual meeting in Las Vegas was moderated by Eve Runyon, president and CEO of the Pro Bono Institute and also featured James Office, VP and general counsel at Victory Wholesale Group.
Partner with law firms
The panelists said one of the first things legal departments wanting to develop pro bono programs should do is ask their law firms about ways they could partner on such work.
Stahlkopf, who also promoted pro bono efforts while serving as GC at Microsoft prior to joining Cisco last year, said collaborations with outside counsel are particularly important for getting in-house pro bono initiatives off the ground.
“The law firms are so much further along the journey than many of us are, and they have the infrastructure a lot of us in-house [counsel] don’t have,” she said.
While Amazon was building out its pro bono efforts, it partnered with Perkins Coie to assist young undocumented immigrants seeking protection from deportation and work authorization under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
Zapolsky said he appreciated that both lawyers and nonlawyer professionals could assist with the work after going through the necessary training.
As of June 2021, Amazon legal team members had participated in nearly 170 DACA clinics, assisting more than 2,100 young people.
“This was one of our first successes teaming with law firms to work literally alongside them,” Zapolsky said.
Overall, 79% of legal departments report entering into partnership with law firms, according to the 2022 Corporate Pro Bono benchmarking report from the Pro Bono Institute.
Other types of partnerships
The same percentage of legal departments (79%) said they enter into partnerships with legal services organizations for pro bono work.
Stahlkopf said one way she has promoted such partnerships is by holding pro bono fairs featuring different organizations in need of volunteer assistance.
Typically, the fairs give representatives of the groups a chance to share short pitches and then they set up tables where employees can come learn more information about the opportunities and sign up to serve if interested.
Cisco recently held a fair in recent weeks as part of celebrating pro bono month in October, and Stahlkopf said it was well received.
“Lo and behold, as I was leaving, I was seeing notepad paper with a whole bunch of names signed up saying, 'Okay, I’ll do this,’” she said.
Office and Runyon said in-house counsel working with their local ACC chapters can also be an effective way to get pro bono projects off the ground, particularly for smaller legal departments. For example, the Southwest Ohio chapter of the ACC that Office is involved with has launched a standing pro bono committee designed to provide its members with pro bono opportunities.
Additionally, 56% of legal departments report partnering with other companies’ in-house legal teams.
Flood the zone
Zapolsky said another key to advancing in-house pro bono initiatives is recognizing that different types of opportunities will appeal to different legal staff.
For example, a M&A attorney will likely be more comfortable providing free advice to a nonprofit than representing a tenant in housing court.
By contrast, other attorneys may feel more passionate about volunteering to assist with clearing the criminal records of local residents.
“If you have a large department, as I do, the secret is to flood the zone with as many different opportunities as you possibly can that look different from each other so everyone can find something where they can feel the friction level of stepping up and participating in something other than their job is as low as possible,” Zapolsky said.
Asked to share concluding thoughts, the panelists said GCs and CLOs have an important role to play in ensuring pro bono initiatives secure buy-in from legal department personnel.
“Leadership matters,” Stahlkopf said.
“What I learned when I became general counsel is people do care what you think,” Zapolsky said. “If it is clear to everybody that [pro bono work] really matters to you, it will happen.”
He said the 86-page pro bono report Amazon’s legal department recently issued, the first time it has published such a document, was one way of demonstrating the importance of the volunteer work.
Office quoted Nike’s slogan in urging in-house leaders to move forward quickly with pro bono work: “Just do it.”
Meanwhile, Runyon told ACC conference attendees that any potential barriers to in-house pro bono work can be overcome, and she said the Pro Bono Institute’s Corporate Pro Bono project stands ready to provide assistance.
She also issued a call to action given the tremendous need among the public for legal assistance.
“It is extremely important for us as lawyers and legal staff with unique skills to use those skills to give back to underserved communities,” Runyon said. “No matter what your interest is, there is an opportunity that is right for you.”