Associates in the Trenches

Transaction Action

Pro Bono Service Isn’t Always Synonymous With Litigation

Posted Sep 29, 2005 1:07 AM CDT
By Hope Viner Samborn

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Just a few years into his practice, Churchill Hooff found himself leading a real estate deal for a nonprofit corporation he had helped set up.

Hooff was able to get in on such a big part of the action so early in his career thanks to a pro bono opportunity arranged through his firm, Sutherland Asbill & Brennan, which is based in Atlanta. The project involved about 500 low-income seniors and minorities who wanted to form a nonprofit corporation, called People of Hope, to provide housing for the group, which had been displaced from an Athens, Ga., trailer park.

“It was a great opportunity for me to run with the closing and handle it primarily on my own,” Hooff says. “It was very rewarding to be able to find a way to keep a community intact.”

Hooff, who now works in Sutherland Asbill’s Washington, D.C., office, is one of a growing number of associates who are learning that pro bono doesn’t always have to involve litigation. There are projects that provide chances for lawyers to hone their transactional skills while applying their talents for a good cause. And that’s welcome news to those lawyers who are more comfortable drafting documents than accompanying a client to divorce court.

“In the last five years, there has been an exponential increase in these projects,” says Kathleen Hopkins of Seattle, head of the ABA Business Law Section’s Pro Bono Committee. Hopkins says the section is involved in at least 30 transactional law projects nationwide. Many local bar associations also offer programs to link transactional lawyers with nonprofits in need of pro bono assistance. Among those are the Texas C-Bar program and Georgia’s A Business Commitment project.

Real Deals, Real Experience

For the People of Hope project, Hooff and his colleagues handled grant and zoning applications and various real estate-related issues. The work was “very much like what these lawyers do in their regular practice,” says partner Charlie Lester, who supervises the firm’s pro bono service.

Associates at Boston’s Ropes & Gray learned about issues involved in real property and intellectual property through a project for Artists for Humanity, a nonprofit corporation. The goal was to establish a home where low-income youths could create and exhibit works of art.

Lawyers from Ropes & Gray provided expertise for the project’s financing through a tax-exempt development bond, did tax work, assisted in property acquisition, handled environmental impact statements, drafted and reviewed contracts, attended zoning hearings, resolved permit issues, and handled lien waivers and other construction-related issues.

The firm estimates that it donated more than 750 pro bono hours to the project—a value of several hundred thousand dollars, says David B. Walek, a partner who helped supervise the endeavor.

From a business standpoint, that investment is a worthwhile tradeoff because of the attorney development opportunities. “Business clients these days are increasingly cost-conscious. They don’t want to be paying for someone’s learning curve,” Walek says. Pro bono projects are a perfect opportunity for associates and even some seasoned attorneys to take time to learn.

On top of that, firms value the chance to give back, and that’s what associates say is most important to them, too. “Giving back in general is always important,” says Kristen W. Prohl, a mid-level associate at Proskauer Rose in New York City. She donated her time to research federal and state grants to benefit businesses devastated by the Sept. 11 attacks. “Law,” Prohl says, “is a field that is about creating equality and giving opportunities where they may not have had opportunities before.”

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