Pro bono & community action: Cleary Gottlieb works some magic on Haiti school project

Lawyers in the London office of Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton are advising the children’s charity Pockets of Hope on a Haiti-based educational programme. With the help of Cleary Gottlieb’s corporate advisers, the Florida-based charity is establishing a school for French literacy on the tiny Haitian island of La Gonave. A London-based tax partner, tax associate and two corporate associates helped Pockets of Hope register as a not-for-profit organisation in Florida and advised it on obtaining Section 501(1)(3) not-for-profit tax status. The team is now assisting the charity to register in other states across the US.

Closer to home, the London office is advising the Devon and Exeter Racial Equality Council on its conversion to a company limited by guarantee, as well as assisting the Guiting Festival, an annual week-long programme of cultural events in the Cotswolds, with its application for charity status. With expertise in corporate finance and capital markets, its lawyers are active mainly in corporate advice work for UK and US charities.

The firm

Since its inception in 1971, lawyers in the London office have been active in pro bono matters. However, it has only been in the past three years that a formal structure has grown. Pro bono coordinator in the London office Jennifer Bender has spearheaded the firm’s move towards a formalised pro bono programme.

Today, 27 lawyers, including six partners, are regular participants in pro bono work. Last year the London office clocked up a total of 540 pro bono hours, not including general community activity. The firm is currently engaged in 19 active pro bono matters, most of which are on behalf of LawWorks, the Solicitors Pro Bono Group service devoted to matching pro bono clients with commercial legal advisers. LawWorks operates by sending monthly emails to participating firms with descriptions of the pro bono matters available. Cleary Gottlieb allows its lawyers to select matters that interest them, before allocating a supervising partner. “There’s no element of compulsion,” says Bender. “We want people to be excited about the work they’re taking on. We want engaging work, which can be intellectually stimulating or highly valuable to the community.”

Another challenge has been to include non-UK-qualified lawyers in pro bono activities. Around half of the 60 lawyers in the London office are not UK-qualified and need to “get themselves up to speed on UK law,” says Bender. Advice work for UK-based charities seeking Section 501(c)(3) tax-free charity status in the US is one area in which US lawyers can bring their expertise to bear.

The Lawyer verdict

Given its modest size, Cleary Gottlieb’s London office is showing an impressive and well-organised commitment to pro bono work. Although heavily reliant on LawWorks and the personal contacts of its lawyers, the firm is cleverly exploiting its expertise in US law and corporate transactions in the pro bono field. Expanding the pro bono programme to include advocacy work would have the dual benefits of providing UK court experience for the firm’s lawyers, as well as offering junior fee-earners a chance to cut their teeth on smaller matters.