If you ask a highly skilled corporate lawyer why they’re nervous about volunteering through PBO’s Free Legal Advice Hotline, you will often hear a more or less diplomatic version of: “I practice in a very niche area of law and couldn’t possibly help someone with a real problem.” The irony is that the exact traits that make some corporate lawyers hesitant – the desire to provide excellent service, conscientiousness, and deep commitment to their professional and ethical obligations – make them ideally suited to pro bono service. The fact is that pro bono is not just for litigators.
WHAT CORPORATE LAWYERS BRING TO THE TABLE
For 88% of our callers, the Hotline represents the first time they speak to a lawyer about their legal problem and the first time they gain meaningful insight about the legal system and its role in their dispute resolution process. It is important to note that the goal of every Hotline consultation is not to solve a caller’s entire legal issue (although this can happen), but rather to help people understand the nature of their legal problem, impart some understanding of how the law can apply to their situation, and provide enough information so callers can make informed decisions or take next steps on their own, before calling back for more help as needed. Corporate lawyers bring important skillsets to these consultations, such as careful listening, problem solving and negotiation skills, and have the practical and business acumen to help clients see their issues with clarity and move forward with purpose. After taking more than 70,000 calls over the past few years and achieving an 87% service satisfaction rate, we know that this kind of strategic advice is what our clients need and want.
HOW PBO SUPPORTS CORPORATE LAWYERS
There are plenty of non-litigation opportunities on the Hotline, and volunteer lawyers are never asked to take calls outside their comfort area. In the first half of 2021, we provided 600 consultations to start-ups, small businesses and NGO’s seeking advice about a variety of issues including choosing the appropriate business structure, shareholder rights, commercial contracts, and intellectual property.
Moreover, a significant proportion of Ontarians’ “real” legal problems are contract disputes at heart. As a result, many corporate lawyers choose to branch out and quickly become comfortable taking calls in consumer protection and debt and Small Claims. Very few lawyers specialize in these fields, and a skilled corporate lawyer can bring a wealth of knowledge to bear on common legal issues, regardless of whether they happen to know off-hand which form is required for a particular step – that’s where PBO’s support comes into play.
PBO is committed to supporting volunteers and ensuring that the public gets consistent, high-quality legal assistance. As such, we offer volunteers:
- Extensive knowledge articles written by lawyers for lawyers, with clear, concise answers to commonly asked questions. Each article in PBO’s keyword-searchable database features a summary of the law and how it applies to the question, links to the governing legislation, rules and regulations, and, when available, links to forms the clients may need.
- Real-time staff support throughout a shift. Multiple staff lawyers and paralegals monitor PBO’s Slack channels each day. They provide substantive and procedural information, point volunteers to the right resources, and help them provide competent advice to the public.
- The Hold button. One of the first things we teach volunteers is how to put callers on hold so they can conduct legal research, ask a question and even review returning callers’ case notes. Clients are happy to wait, as they understand they are receiving personalized assistance.
Simply put, the Hotline’s infrastructure enables corporate lawyers to leverage their hard and soft skills, work within – or expand – their comfort zones, and increase access to justice with the knowledge that there is an ample safety net beneath them.
Moreover, the Hotline represents an extremely low-barrier pro bono opportunity. Since it is fully remote, corporate lawyers can participate from home or the office. Because PBO can accommodate full- and half-day shifts, it is easy for lawyers to fit volunteering into their calendars. As law firms look for ways to engage their entire teams and boost their pro bono commitment, they should ensure that their corporate lawyers have equal opportunities at the Hotline. A law firm could easily double their pro bono commitment by involving their corporate lawyers.
The same holds true for in-house legal departments looking for ways to meet their CSR targets and build their teams’ skills. In the words of our Chair, George Weston Ltd. CLO and Hotline volunteer Gord Currie, “As a corporate lawyer, I understand the instinct to be prepared. I went into my first Hotline shift with the nervous energy of a new call, uncertain that I could actually help people. But I left with the knowledge that I could do good and do it well in a supported environment. Every lawyer in our group is required to commit to pro bono activities this year as part of their performance objectives.”