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July 22, 2008 2:55 PM

PRO BONO 2008: The Pros

Posted by Kirstin Maguire

0006406_2 Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal is among the many law firms that have hired full-time pro bono partners in recent years. Last month, the firm welcomed Benjamin Weinberg, most recently chief of the Illinois attorney general's public interest division, as its second pro bono partner. The move, Weinberg says, was a natural, given his longstanding regard for public interest work. We talked to him about how the new job connects to what he's done in the past, and why it's important for a pro bono coordinator to be a lawyer.

This is an interesting move given your background in the Illinois attorney general’s office. Why now, what drew you to it?
I went to law school to be a public interest lawyer. [Before joining the attorney general's office], I was hired at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago, and I was a staff attorney in a neighborhood office doing exactly what I wanted to do. I thought about working at a law firm, and I went to Jenner & Block for seven years because of its focus on pro bono.

[More recently] I wanted to get back to my public interest roots. Lisa Madigan, the newly elected attorney general in Illinois, wanted to fill the position of chief of the public interest division. I got the job. Basically, we created a public interest law firm within the office. I thought about returning to private practice, and decided I couldn't do it, given the impact of the public interest litigation I was doing. Then I heard from a friend at Sonnenschein that the firm was looking for a new pro bono partner. When I looked into it, I discovered the firm had an outstanding pro bono record. It turns out they wanted me to do what Attorney General Madigan wanted me to do: come into an organization and point it in the right direction. I thought it was an incredible opportunity to harness the resources of a full-service national law firm.

The firm already has a really strong pro bono commitment, as you note. What are the goals going forward, and how does your position better support the achievement of those goals?
The overarching firm goal is to grow and expand the pro bono program. [To do so], it's important for me to get out to offices to ensure the culture of pro bono is spread throughout the firm. Management understands that in a world of growing billable hours, it's not enough to have an abstract commitment. That’s why we have a pro bono partner. Specifically, I'm going to be developing ways to expand our transactional practice.

How is your job any different from a nonlawyer pro bono coordinator's--what's the advantage in being a lawyer?
The words "from a nonlawyer pro bono coordinator" are heard differently than "from a partner at a firm." One of my jobs is to work with advocacy groups and legal aid groups. Also, we are really trying to cater to our lawyers by finding pro bono work that appeals to them. In order to do that, it helps that I also am a lawyer.

How involved will management be in the administration of pro bono?
Firm management is completely behind the plan to grow and expand the pro bono program. I have a call with firm chairman Elliott Portnoy every month. The pro bono committee, which is chaired by a former managing partner, meets monthly, and I have access to the firm management.

Will your role in any way include working with firm clients on how they handle or take on pro bono matters?
We are very interested in working with our own clients on developing the pro bono practice. There are a number of firm clients that contribute a lot to pro bono efforts. I think Allstate, which is a large firm client, has a domestic violence program, and we look forward to working with them on that.

Law firms have been developing signature programs and long-term relationships with organizations on pro bono matters. Are there any organizations you already know you'll be approaching to talk about working together?
We already have those relationships with a number of groups. We do a tremendous amount of work for Human Rights Watch and for inMotion [a New York program that offers low-income women free legal services relating to matrimonial, family, and immigration law]. There's a number of different Chicago organizations like the Cara program [an employment training and permanent job placement organization for homeless and at-risk people]. We've done a lot of work with them in the past and have talked about being pro bono outside general counsel.

What do you tell lawyers about the role pro bono should play in their careers?
It's good for your soul to give back to such an incredible unmet need for legal services for people, so to be able to provide that, while earning the salary large law firms pay, feels good. And pro bono work can provide tremendous training for more junior lawyers.

PRO BONO SCORECARD 2008 Sonnenschein ranked 29th on this year's Scorecard (down from 15th last year). The average number of pro bono hours per lawyer was 79.9; 66.6 percent of the firm's lawyers contributed more than 20 hours to pro bono matters last year.

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