Now in Legal Rebels:
Posted Apr 01, 2007 11:52 am CDT
“The program has changed my life,” says Hayes of Columbia, S.C. “It’s given me the opportunity to give something back to what started off as a handful of people and has now grown into the thousands.”
Hayes is just one of many lawyers nationwide who have kicked pro bono work up a notch by starting nonprofit organizations that have benefited communities beyond their founders’ expectations.
Whether a single attorney or an entire firm are behind such launches, the creation of nonprofits has provided opportunities for attorneys and their co workers to build camaraderie, connect with clients and make a difference on a grand scale.
Hayes conceived of the idea for Wills for Heroes–which provides no cost estate planning documents to such first responders as police officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians–while watching news coverage of the World Trade Center attack.
Like many, he wanted to help but was miles away. He became inspired, however, after hearing someone on TV say that Americans didn’t have to help clear ground zero to contribute; they could make a difference in their own communities.
That led Hayes to set up a meeting with local firefighters at which he learned that most didn’t have wills. With the help of his firm’s computer gurus and trusts department, Hayes created a will template that could be readily customized for each firefighter. Wills for Heroes began in South Carolina in November 2001, later spreading through several Southern states.
In 2005, Jeffrey H. Jacobson, a Tucson, Ariz., attorney whom Hayes knew through the ABA’s Young Lawyers Division, took the oars and created the Wills for Heroes
Foundation to take the program national. Because they acted as a tag team in building the program, the two attorneys consider themselves co founders.
Hayes says his firm, Nelson Mullins, has contributed money and computer support to the program, and firm attorneys who participate get pro bono credit. The same is true for Jacobson’s firm, Waterfall Economidis Caldwell Hanshaw & Villamana, which covered the roughly $20,000 Jacobson says it cost in time and money to create the foundation.
Both firms have received recognition and goodwill for their contributions to the program, though neither has netted any profit. That, of course, is not the point. “First responders don’t ask whom you vote for or what color you are. When the alarm sounds, they go. That’s the deal,” explains Hayes. “And that should be our deal. If your community needs help, you help. I believe that, and my firm believes that.”
For Seattle lawyer heather Wynnia Kerr, the impetus to make a difference was personal. In the early 1990s she was hit by a car and seriously injured, and caring for a dog was one step in rebuilding her life.
Kerr’s dog became so important to her that she wanted to help other dogs. But when she went to her local animal shelter, she found it had no adoption or volunteer programs. “I thought, ‘This is terrible. Somebody needs to step up to the plate and get these pets good homes.’ ”
That somebody was Kerr. In 1998, she formed an animal adoption group in Seattle and then another in 2001 in rural Washington called Rescue Every Dog. Kerr’s LL.M. in tax was invaluable in creating the nonprofit. All told, Kerr estimates spending about 100 hours drafting the necessary legal documents.
Her firm, Stoel Rives in Seattle, provided office space for board meetings, and Kerr’s secretary worked after hours on the paperwork. Staffers have volunteered their time and money, and even adopted homeless animals.
The firm’s support has come back in spades. “There’s a tremendous amount of goodwill,” says Kerr. “It shows our clients that our lawyers have lives outside of law and that we’re in the community doing things helpful and yet completely different from our business.”
Kerr says it’s given her clients “a personal connection with me that’s totally outside our business relationship.”
Doing good works can bring a firm together, as Wheeler Trigg Kennedy in Denver found. Two years ago, the 42 lawyer firm created a charitable foundation, and it has since donated more than $300,000 plus countless hours of personal staff time to Denver’s neediest people.
In 2005, WTK “was doing so well that we wanted to figure out a way to give back,” says firm chairman Mike O’Donnell. Firm leaders wanted to build camaraderie through volunteer work that had staff members working side by side. The result was the Wheeler Trigg Kennedy Foundation.
Its creation was itself a model of attorney cooperation, according to O’Donnell. Since WTK specializes in litigation, it approached attorneys at one of the largest firms in Colorado–Holland & Hart–who showed the litigators the document drafting ropes. Two administrators at WTK spent about 50 hours following up to get the foundation incorporated, and they manage its continuing operation. The firm itself has contributed about $60,000 to the foundation annually, and attorneys and staff have donated thousands of dollars and personal hours each year.
In addition to the good works of the foundation–most recently assisting Hurricane Katrina victims who relocated to Denver–there are also intangible benefits to WTK, says O’Donnell. “The foundation is obviously the right thing to do, but it’s also the smart thing to do because there are benefits from fulfilled employees,” he says. For the past two years, WTK has been named one of the best places to work in Denver, O’Donnell says, and the foundation is “a piece of that puzzle.”
The foundation has also contributed to the firm’s reputation. “Our corporate clients like it,” says O’Donnell. “It creates an image in the marketplace of tough trial lawyers who actually have a heart.”