Corporate Pro Bono Initiatives Deliver Legal Aid to Those Who Need It Most

October 27, 2020 by Sean Trambley

When Gwen Boyd-Willis was released from a Georgia women’s prison after a four-month sentence for fraudulently using an ATM card left in a machine, she faced new barriers to gaining employment and becoming a productive member of society. Candid with her mistakes, she wanted to make amends and turn her life around.

Boyd-Willis returned to school, earning a bachelor’s in criminal justice administration and master’s degrees in religious studies and divinity. However, despite her accomplishments, she found herself facing significant barriers to finding employment due to her criminal record.

Last year, she applied to be a counselor at a youth detention center. Making it through the screening process and interviewing in-person, Boyd-Willis felt good about her prospects. 

“They loved me,” she said, “but when my record came back, they couldn’t [hire me].”

Not ready to give up, Boyd-Willis reached out to the Georgia Justice Project, a non-profit that provides pro bono legal services and legal representation, asking for assistance clearing her record. 

An attorney, Michael Davis of Georgia Pacific, a Koch Industries company, was assigned to her case on a pro bono basis. Over the next year and a half, they met frequently to review her case and submitted a request for a pardon earlier this year.

In August, Boyd-Willis received a letter from the state of Georgia granting her a pardon.

“When I received that letter, I cried for about 30 minutes. And I’ve just been sharing with a lot of people that were great supporters during that time for me. So, I’m still in awe,” she said. “I’m just thankful and grateful that the board decided to give it to me, because I worked so hard. I’m not the same person today that I was 15 years ago anyway. I’m glad I don’t have it hanging over my head anymore.”

For many, a prison sentence is more than just time served, it is a scarlet letter following them around for life, limiting job, housing, and personal opportunities. The work of Michael Davis on behalf of Gwen Boyd-Willis is a glimpse into Koch Industries’ pro bono initiative founded to provide legal services to those who need it most. 

Launched in 2018, the pro bono initiative gives Koch Industries’ 200-plus lawyers the chance to donate thousands of hours to individuals and organizations in need of legal assistance. Much of the pro bono work benefits organizations supported by the Stand Together Foundation, a philanthropic community founded by Koch Industries Chairman and CEO Charles Koch. The foundation supports 200+ community-based organizations working on issues including addiction, mental health, financial empowerment, housing, prison and re-entry, workforce development, and education. Koch is also expanding their efforts to include the thousands of lawyers in their outside partner law firms.

Pro bono work is encouraged and supported at many companies with a large legal team. Telecommunications company Verizon launched a pro bono initiative in 2010, with a focus on criminal justice, education, domestic violence, and veterans.

Other companies, like Cargill and Bank of America, have expanded pro bono programs in recent years.

For these companies, it is an opportunity for their legal teams to assist their communities with a specialized set of skills and knowledge that are often out of reach for disadvantaged causes.

Matt Ellis is the chief counsel for Ag and Energy Solutions at Koch Industries and pro bono initiative leader. He started his legal career at a law firm in Texas and was there for several years. He recalls that the firm made it really easy to get involved with pro bono work and encouraged it. 

“I kind of got the pro bono bug when I was there and worked on a variety of different pro bono matters. Fast forward, I came to Koch, moved in-house and we never had an official organized pro bono program,” Ellis said. “And then one day I heard that Koch might be starting a pro bono program. I jumped at the opportunity to get involved.”

Three years later, the program is going strong.

Koch has provided approximately 475 pro bono hours with 84 volunteers from a variety of Koch companies, and the initiative is growing as other firms see the value in the work.

One specific project in collaboration with Kansas Legal Services since 2018 has focused on expunging criminal records to give people their lives back. These drives in 2018 resulted in 209 county expungements and 79 Wichita expungements. Of these, 20 individuals were represented by Koch attorneys with 37 cases being expunged by Koch attorneys and staff. 

The drive continued in 2019 into 2020, with over 160 volunteer hours by 28 Koch volunteers. Over 50 cases have been expunged for 22 clients.

Efforts are ongoing. In Wichita, Kansas Child Protective Services is partnering with Kansas Legal Services for a Juvenile Clean Slate Project. KLS is teaming up with Big Brothers/Big Sisters and the Department of Family & Children to do a drive exclusively to help individuals get juvenile convictions/arrests removed from their records. 

Koch Legal plans to reach out to Catalyst partners, such as Rise Up for Youth and Youth Entrepreneurs, to see if they have individuals who can benefit from this effort.

Melissa Brown, Koch’s associate general counsel for Public Policy and Pro Bono, says that formalizing a program harnessing the experience of Koch’s staff and partner lawyers to dedicate valuable pro bono work is an example of the company “walking the walk” by supporting local projects.

“So my day job used to be just working in the civil policy area. But now, I mean, even down to my title, it includes pro bono and the emphasis on pro bono,” Brown said. “I think that’s the part of the demonstrated commitment by the company that there is a team in place that is charged with growing this initiative.”

Amplifying Koch’s pro bono efforts, this initiative is being joined by a number of firms, including Barnes & Thornburg, Alston & Bird, and Williams Mullen.

Barnes & Thornburg has made one of the largest commitments thus far, pledging 10,000 hours over three years with more than 600 attorneys, worth millions of dollars.

In a statement, Barnes & Thornburg shared their commitment to pro bono work, “Barnes & Thornburg has been deeply committed to pro bono for many decades, so this seemed like a natural thing to do with Koch Industries. The Koch/BT Initiative is truly a win-win-win-win-win for everyone involved.”

Speaking to how this initiative has had immediate effects, Ellis shared a particularly fruitful experience. “One of the law firms came to us a few months ago and they work with a non-profit in Kansas City. The nonprofit was being sued in Atlanta and they didn’t really have anyone there. So we reached out to Barnes and Thornburg and they agreed to take a look into this litigation and got the whole case dismissed within two weeks. 

“We reached out to Barnes and Thornburg partly because they already had this pro bono commitment that they had made to us. And we knew that they were really committed to looking at those things. They have a huge presence. So, it was a huge success. And the nonprofit couldn’t believe how quick that happened. The nonprofit was so grateful that it was resolved in such a great way.”

Melissa Brown also highlighted Koch’s efforts with Williams Mullen to “adopt a catalyst,” where a law firm that is geographically close to a catalyst organization works closely with a local non-profit, in this case DC Central Kitchen, that addresses food insecurity and job training in the DC metro region. Williams Mullen not only has lawyers, but it also has public relations staff, and additional nonlegal staff looking to volunteer. 

Williams Mullen said in a statement, “Upon learning more about the organization’s important mission, which includes providing food to schools and the community and job training, Williams Mullen was eager to find a way that we could be helpful. We had hoped to participate in their volunteer gleaning program at a local farm, but have been unable to do so due to COVID-19. We are proud to be a sponsor of their major fundraising event, the Capital Food Fight, and look forward to in-person volunteer opportunities in the future, as giving back to the community is a significant part of our firm’s culture.”

“When you pair up an organization like D.C. Central Kitchen with Williams Mullen,” Brown said, “You end up with all kinds of partnerships that are possible, legal and non-legal.”

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