Although CUNA Mutual Group has been offering pro bono legal services since 2013, it has never been clear whether Wisconsin Supreme Court rules let every lawyer there participate.
Particularly ambiguous are the rules concerning in-house attorneys who are employed by the Madison-based insurance company and have in-state clients but are nonetheless not licensed in Wisconsin. These so-called registered in-house attorneys can now only do pro bono work for “qualified clients of a legal service program” — a phrase whose exact meaning has never been spelled out.
A recent proposal is meant to change that.
“We weren’t sure how to interpret the rule, and we didn’t want to violate it,” said Kate Johnson, lead counsel at CUNA Mutual. “So some of our registered in-house counsel staff sat out on pro bono activities they would have otherwise liked to participate in.”
Wisconsin now has roughly 350 lawyers registered as in-house counsel, according to the Board of Bar Examiners, the agency charged with overseeing both admissions to the State Bar and continuing legal education. With so many attorneys falling into that category, demand is perhaps stronger than ever for a revision of the rules governing their ability to do pro bono work.
“The need for providing legal services to those of lower means is very, very high,” said Mike Anderson, chief legal officer at CUNA Mutual. “Law firms that are great at organizing programs for their staff to get involved with pro bono have had a big impact. Kate (Johnson) came to me and said, ‘Let’s do that in-house.’”
In practice, though, Johnson and Anderson quickly found that things weren’t as easy as they might have expected. When CUNA Mutual officials tried to consult ethics experts about whether in-house registered attorneys could perform pro bono legal work, they would get conflicting answers, Anderson said.
Of the 20 lawyers who work at CUNA Mutual, two are registered in-house attorneys. Even though they hold licenses in other states, the fact that they have not been admitted to Wisconsin’s State Bar subjects them to certain restrictions.
They are limited, for instance, to working for non-government entities and are essentially prohibited from practicing law for any client other than their employer. They also may not represent clients in court unless they apply for pro hac vice status.
And there are the questions over whether they can perform pro bono work.
The Wisconsin chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel has led the recent attempts at getting the Wisconsin Supreme Court to clarify and expand the rules governing pro bono practice for registered in-house attorneys.
The work has been going on for at least four years. Its culmination came with a petition that the Association of Corporate Counsel teamed up with the State Bar to present to the state Supreme Court.
And the proposals related to pro bono practice don’t stop there. Another before the Supreme Court would incorporate the bar’s request to let licensed lawyers earn continuing-legal-education credit for pro bono work.
At a public hearing in April, the justices gave their initial blessing to the proposed rule changes that would let in-house registered counsel perform pro bono work. Although the final language has yet to be issued, the new rules are expected to go into effect Jan. 1.
Once that happens, Wisconsin will become the 13th state to take such a step for registered in-house counsel.
That means the CUNA Mutual’s registered in-house attorneys will be able to join their state-licensed colleagues in using their talents and experience to provide pro bono legal aid. The two attorneys, said Anderson, have more than 20 years of legal experience and are experts in securities and annuities, technology and the Employment Retirement Income Security Law.
“We’ve done a good job,” said Anderson. “We want to do a great job. We have some unique skills that could be useful for entrepreneurs or nonprofits, and I think that we’ll be looking for an appropriate place to use those skills and expand the kinds of pro bono services we provide.”
CUNA Mutual isn’t the only company to have developed its own pro bono program in recent years. There has in fact been a bit of a boom in this sort of work by in-house counsel over the past 10 to 15 years.
More than half of all Fortune 100 companies and almost half of Fortune 500 companies have their own pro bono programs, said Eve Runyon, director of Corporate Pro Bono, a partnership between the Pro Bono Institute and the Association of Corporate Counsel.
Several developments in the legal profession are driving the interest. One of them is the large number of attorneys who are leaving law firms to take positions as in-house counsel. Lawyers who’ve have had experience working at a big firm have often grown accustomed to be able to do pro bono work.
Most are eager to see that opportunity replicated in their new positions, Runyon said.
“We’ve seen a tremendous increase in the interest to be engaged in pro bono,” said Runyon. “There’s a desire to formalize and promote those efforts, and create greater opportunities.” Follow @erikastrebel