Pro bono work within firms has taken on a new status in recent years. There was a time when it was something individual lawyers did for their own satisfaction or interest, occasionally it was something the human resources teams saw as a good "team building exercise" and senior partners saw as good training for junior staff.

But then the marketing people arrived and as they cast their eyes around the virgin territory of the modern law firm, their minds began to spin. Suddenly pro bono was a sub-division of PR. It might be PR by stealth, but pro bono was still moved into a broader project of branding and positioning.

But as with all legal marketing there is a learning curve. Unsophisticated outreach has often failed to deliver the brand values and customer loyalty desired. The temptation is either to sell it harder or to forget it.

Maybe what is needed is to sell it smarter. Any involvement with the local community needs to be carefully handled if clients who are watching it are not to become cynical or suspicious. The involvement must be valuable (and by definition pro bono work is) but it must also be focused and systematic.

Walkers Crisps has just announced a new venture following on the success of its Free Books for Schools scheme. The company has launched a website to showcase children's schoolwork, where 34,000 schools will be given space to display poems, essays and even video and sound. The company claims that parents can use the site to help select secondary schools in their area. The site will be marketed on crisp packets, point-of-sale material and in schools.

This initiative is obviously costing money, although probably not very much. What it is doing is getting the the Walkers' brand across to parents and in through the school gates – still a difficult barrier to cross. It remains to be seen whether the site takes off but with many schools unable to create their own online presence, it is likely to be warmly received.

From the company's perspective it had a marketing need and then looked for a social need that could be addressed. Then it targeted both. From the potential customers' point of view the company is offering a service. Of course it was a PR stunt but that doesn't mean that it isn't useful. The website wouldn't make me go out and buy crisps, but it adds to the sum of my knowledge about Walkers.

Law firms have an advantage over FMCG [fast moving consumer goods] companies like Walkers. Their product is, by definition, useful. They do not have to search around for something to offer someone.

If they could clearly identify a social need and create a branded initiative for that need, that could act as umbrella for the disparate work that is already being done or planned. The firm, not its lawyers, can be seen as creating a social product rather than doing scattergun social work.

Walkers is rapidly developing a relationship with one of the UK's top three causes (schools, hospitals and animals) by simply providing some resources. If firms can find a systematic way of offering something far more valuable – something that can solve problems and save money – they have the opportunity to develop similar relationships and positions.

Pro bono work must not be run by marketing departments, but neither is it separate from the broader work – legal and marketing – of a modern firm. As such, it needs to be managed in order to be effective for its beneficiaries, the firm and its clients.