The Pro Bono Institute (PBI) 2022 Annual Conference was back in person in Washington, D.C., after going virtual for the pandemic. PBI’s annual conference is the legal profession’s premier pro bono event tailored to the interests and needs of pro bono leaders at law firms, in-house legal departments, and nonprofit legal services organizations. Thomson Reuters was honored to again sponsor the conference.

I had the pleasure of moderating the panel “The Intersection of Pro Bono and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” with esteemed panelists, Nefertiti Alexander, partner at Kasowitz Benson Torres LLP; Jordan Howlette, managing member of JD Howlette Law, LLC; and Robin Taylor, executive director of Lawyers Without Borders.

It was a successful and interactive panel with a packed room of pro bono leaders. Many law firms and companies have both a pro bono and a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) program, but these activities are often independent from one another. Together we explored how DEI and pro bono intersect, discussed the benefits of aligning DEI and pro bono efforts, provided examples of how these programs can be integrated, and examined how to manage the risks of integrating DEI and pro bono work. A few key insights from the panel discussion:

  • Taylor, on the importance of lawyers taking on pro bono and DEI: “Don’t lose sight of the impact, and why we’re doing this. Why do we have people focused on pro bono and on diversity? You [lawyers] are the road to enlightenment… you are the leaders. People are looking at you, they’re listening to you…. you can promote these values and make people want to be comfortable in society… you will really succeed.”​​​​​​​
  • Alexander, describing a successful pro bono project that came out of communications between pro bono and DEI stakeholders: “While I was an associate at my first firm, one thing that I was struggling with at the time was that there were quite a few police killings…. We were able to invite the heads of affinity groups, diversity team members, and heads of pro bono because one of the ideas that came out of the associates of color was that they wanted the firm to be doing more pro bono in the police accountability space. We were able to brainstorm with all of those people bringing their insights and backgrounds together to come up with an action plan to create projects and find opportunities. Through that, I was empowered to reach out to a professor in Chicago who is a policing expert and ask, if you had the resources of a large law firm behind you, what would you do? What we ended up doing is bring a class action against Chicago for its police brutality practices. We represented Black Lives Matter, neighborhood associations, community groups, and individuals who have been dealing with this issue…. We were able to get a consent decree where we had a settlement with Chicago that allowed community members to have a seat at the table in terms of policing practices that needed to be changed. It was only possible because of the communication between DEI and pro bono and building a broad level of support so that we could get buy-in to take on something that was innovative.”
  • Howlette, on finding synergies between pro bono and DEI work: “Internal DEI is the work that you do to promote DEI within your organization, from recruiting to retention, versus the external DEI work that shares a lot of synergies with pro bono. That’s the work you’re doing in the field externally, volunteer work. In the external DEI work, who’s being served by the DEI work and what is the impact? For example, racial justice DEI work – a lot of that is going to overlap with pro bono work – voting rights, veterans’ work, criminal expungement matters.”
  • Alexander gave a final tip with the acronym, KTSE – Keep the Same Energy: “We know when we’re recruiting diverse candidates or bringing in new employees that they want to work somewhere that’s psychologically safe, we know that diversity is important…. All of that energy and resources and emphasis … [keep the same energy] when people are actually working, when we think of their promotion prospects. And when we think about the kind of pro bono work we want to do, remember, what did we say when people came in the door, and we wanted them to feel safe and that they belonged and that we cared about all these issues?”

We also used polling technology to ask the audience questions to determine where their companies are in their DEI and pro bono journeys. Engagement was high, from the participation in the audience polls to the positive comments at the end of the official panel, and the informal discussions that continued after the panel’s conclusion.

Conference sessions were chock full of information for pro bono leaders, including:​​​​​​​

  • Tips for designing a successful pro bono program, building cultural competency, increasing volunteer engagement, sustaining effective partnerships, and communicating pro bono successes.
  • A successful partnership model for assisting transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming clients with legal name and gender marker changes.
  • Insights on how to make legal services for disaster preparedness and relief more equitable.
  • An eye-opening account of the use of forced to labor on plantation prisons in the South.
  • A plenary session that looked at the U.S. Supreme Court, its recent key cases, current controversies, and upcoming docket.

It was an exciting week filled with motivating content and networking opportunities that provided fresh ideas and inspiration for developing and growing the Thomson Reuters Global Pro Bono Program.

To learn more about Thomson Reuters’ pro bono legal work, check out the 2020 Social Impact Report.

This is a guest post from Helen Respass, senior legal editor, Law Department Service, Practical Law. She is co-chair of the Thomson Reuters Global Pro Bono Program. In the photo above, from left to right are Nefertiti Alexander, Helen Respass, Robin Taylor, and Jordan Howlette.

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