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Giving Back Through Pro Bono Work

February 23, 2021

In this episode…

Pro bono, a Latin phrase that roughly translates to “for the good of the people,” is a practice that involves lawyers offering their services to those who cannot afford them. For struggling businesses and organizations, underserved individuals, and others who need it most, pro bono work is life-changing. For Greg McConnell, Senior Pro Bono Counsel at Winston & Strawn LLP, it is his passion.

While the American Bar Association recommends 50 hours of pro bono work a year, Greg is on a mission to increase that number among lawyers across the nation. To further that aim, he helped found the Association of Pro Bono Counsel. Giving back is woven into the fabric of his career—and he wants to help others do the same.

Episode Transcript:

Note: Transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Host: Russ Rosenzweig, CEO and Co-Founder of Round Table Group

Guest: Greg McConnell, Senior Pro Bono Counsel

Introduction: Welcome to Engaging Experts, the podcast that goes behind the scenes with influential attorneys. Our guests will describe their practice and expertise. Then, we will go deep on various topics related to effectively using expert witnesses. 

Russ Rosenzweig: Hi, this is Russ Rosenzweig. I am the CEO and Co-Founder of Round Table Group, and the host of this podcast series Engaging Experts. We have a great guest for you today — Greg McConnell. Greg is the Senior Pro Bono Counsel at Winston & Strawn and an inspiration for our own pro bono programs here at Round Table Group. Thank you, Greg. Welcome. 

Greg McConnell: My pleasureIt is great to be here, Russ. 

Russ Rosenzweig: Now before we dive in, let’s have a quick message from our sponsor. 

Announcer: This episode is brought to you by Round Table Group, the Experts on Experts®. We’ve been connecting attorneys with experts for over 25 years. Find out more at roundtablegroup.com. 

Russ Rosenzweig: It is great to have you on the program, Greg. Let us start with the very concept of pro bono because that is the topic of our episode today and in these times, pro bono is more important than ever in my opinion. Many of our listeners are fellow business owners like me. They are CEOs of fast-growing private companies, who might not have a thorough concept of what pro bono is. What is it? Why is it importantWhy do lawyers do it? Let us start there. 

Greg McConnell: Well, that is a brief question I should be able to answer, you know, here in the next 30 to 40 minutes.Pro bono publicothe last part that is often gets left out, translates to “for the good of the people.” In the legal profession that is translated into doing work without a fee. The way the profession, and in particular the large law firm component of the profession, has evolved into the pro bono space is that there is a rigorous set of guidelines about what that constitutesWe are talking about low income and/or indigent individuals. When I say there are rigorous criteria, I am talking about a percentage that is based on the federal poverty rate. In the case of most of our legal aid partners, that is upwards of 150% of the poverty rate. The poverty rate currently is about $11,000 for a single individual, so we are talking eligibility for people making less than $20,000 annually.It is a shockingly substantial number, unfortunately. The set of people that we think are potentially eligible could be 30 to 40% of the entire US population. It is a broad group. 

Russ Rosenzweig: Many of my fellow business owners during the pandemic are brothers and sisters in the restaurant industry and hotel industry, who qualify these days. How is the standard set? Could entrepreneurs qualify for pro bono during these times? 

Greg McConnell: That is a great question because the way that the eligibility criteria has evolved over time is that historically it was just individuals, people with basic individual needs [like] landlord /tenant issues, basic domestic relations issues, consumer issues all of the things that you think of that are sort of endemic to the poverty community, but over time, particularly as law firms have become involved and our expertise is really in representing organizations more than individuals. Many times, doing that in litigation construct for our organizational clients, it is business needs. Who are the ideal clients for that? We are talking about entrepreneurs, small business owners, and nonprofits. Over time we have seen our constituent group grow from being individuals to now being, I have not dug into the current numbers from last year because we haven’t spun him out yet, but about 40% of our hours now are going towards organizational clients and small business owners. We have been focusing a lot after the murder of George Floyd on trying to identify black-owned businesses and helping owners who are persons of color concerning their business needsNot necessarily excluding others, of course, but trying to focus on those owners and trying to help them out as much as possible. 

Russ Rosenzweig: that is so important and all of us are focused on social justice. I am pleased to hear that Winston and Strawn are aligned and focused in that area. Why do firms like Winston & Strawn do pro bono work? Do they have to do it? Is it mandatory? Do they want to do it? Just say a little more about that before we dive into your career. How have you shaped the pro bono practice at the firm and elsewhere? Just say a little bit more about the fundamentals of pro bono and why lawyers do it. 

Greg McConnell: There are some ethical guidelines. The ABA Model Rule 6.1, which has been in existence since the early 90s, and their predecessor ethical guidelines recommended that lawyers do pro bono work. Model Rule 6.1 recommends 50 hours per year. Most states have some variation of that, but those are not mandatory. No, one is required to do that. Your license as a lawyer does not depend on you doing that. Those aspirational goals have set the framework and there is the expectation that lawyers will do that. What I find on a practical level is that lawyers understand they have a unique skill set and they are uniquely qualified to help people and organizations in difficult circumstances, where others frankly cannot. There is an understanding of that, and there is a desire in most people to step forward. Particularly, as you mentioned, in these times, and not just with social justice issues, but with the fallout of the pandemic. Many people facing financial crises require legal help in many instances. It is a function of this understanding that I can help people and impact their lives in a way that no one else can. That is powerful and I do not mean that in a power grab way; that is powerful. in an impactful way. Most people walk away from their experience and feel like they have done something to change the course of somebody’s life in a way that to them may not be so consequential.Helping somebody establish a business, which could be a routine thing for a lawyer who helps establish businesses all day long, could be the culmination of a life goal for somebody. There are more dramatic circumstances, people accused of crimes and other things, but it is powerful, and that is what really matters.  

Russ Rosenzweig: It is powerful and inspiring. It reminds me, Greg, that in my world many of my good friends have become lawyers. Our clients are lawyers. Even my wife is in law school right nowMany of them have told me over the years they became lawyers because of this higher calling that you are describing. [Because of] their desire to serve justice and make the world a better place in ways like you are describing. In the end they just spend most of their time transacting or litigating and are not doing that, except periodically with occasional pro bono work. You seem to have carved out a different path even from early in your career to be focused on pro bono as a mission and I want to break that down a little bit if you are graciously willing. You graduated from law school. You served as an employment lawyer, at a big law firm, and then went to the ABA (American Bar Association) to work on pro bono matters. Tell us a bit about your decision to leave big law for the ABA, and what you did there. 

Greg McConnell: I think every lawyer comes to that crossroad at some point in their career, we all want to become lawyers. We think we want to become lawyers. Maybe in the large law firm, but no one knows what that means in practice, and for me, as I got further along in my career, what I found to be the most rewarding part of what I did all day was advise some of our pro bono clients. There is a non-profit on the Southside of Chicago, Firman Community Services, which is right outside of the Robert Taylor Homes in a distressed neighborhood. I became friendly with their executive director. I came to understand that every day she went to work and had this mission of making that a better communityI was enthralled by how powerful and impactful that was. My first inclination, frankly, was to quit law and become an executive director of a nonprofit organization. Then I had the not so brilliant conclusion that I have a law degree and could do things to help people without necessarily trying to develop an entirely different expertise. I am not a social service person by training and background. It would take a while to sort of grab all of that, so I thought I had a path laid out in front of me and I just needed to figure how to go about doing that. The crisis point was when I realized that I was far more engaged in my pro bono work than I was in my professional work and that I needed to make the switch to be effective at what I was doing and end up finding some fulfillment out of my career. 

Russ Rosenzweig: Is it the American Bar Association and your work there that allowed you to manifest that new path? Or was it after the ABA when you joined Winston & Strawn? 

Greg McConnell: It was certainly the start of it. I had the good fortune while a young associate of meeting a woman by the name of Bonnie Allen, who at the time worked at the ABA and hired me. Bonnie is now the executive director of the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and is a terrific leader nationally and locally. Before networking became such a goal of everyone, we met at a meeting and stayed connected. She called me and told me she had an opening about the same time I was exploring whether I wanted to do something different. She had a position at the Center for Pro Bono at ABA. I immediately went into this role of helping lawyers manifest their desire to do some pro bono work and do it in the way that was most important to them. 

Russ Rosenzweig: What were some of the things you accomplished at the ABA? 

Greg McConnell: At the ABA, there were several real changes happening in the legal services world. The Legal Services Corporation at that time had been restructured in 1996 by Congress. At that time, in the second term of Bill Clinton, there was this change in the development of pro bono activities in the term of how they were being funded. The ABA’s role was to work with those organizations to understand best practices and figure out the most effective way to recruit lawyers. We put in place several programs designed to help organizations that were formerly strictly staff based. To diverge a little bit into a legal services organization, most of them have lawyers and they have clients that they are representing with their staff. The question is how much of their staff time do they want to devote to recruiting pro bono lawyers to take on a portion of their overall caseload? We were helping work with the Legal Services Corporation and all their grantees to develop the best programs for them, that would help them increase their pro bono component because that was part of the change that was happening in the Legal Services Corporation funding mandate. 

Russ Rosenzweig: It sounds like it was an incredible opportunity and totally in line with your vision, values, and guiding principles around making pro bono your real focus. After a few years there you went on to one of my very favorite law firms, Winston & Strawn, and our mutual friend Kimball Anderson, he was our first client in the expert witness context, 25 years ago. We have had a great relationship with the firm ever since. Tell us a bit about that. You have been there for 20 years. Why Winston and what are some of the things you have been doing there in the pro bono context? Did you ever practice regular law, for lack of a better term, there? Or was it always in the pro bono counsel role? 

Greg McConnell: At that time Winston was under Kimball’s leadership and take a quick pause about Kimball. He created Winston’s pro bono program, drafted the policy, was the first pro bono chair, and was the chair there for 30 some years until five years ago when he passed the torch to another partner at the firm. But he is the creator of Winston’s pro bono practice in every way imaginable. I was introduced to him through a mutual friend, the executive director of the Chicago Bar Foundation. Winston, at that time, had a position with one of their associates who was helping Kimball manage the pro bono practice and had decided she was departing for Colorado to pursue her interests. The firm decided they wanted to make it a full-time position and give it a sort of a firm-wide role. They were looking for somebody to fill that and I happened to have an appropriate background. Not only had I worked at a large firm, but I knew a lot of the agencies nationwide from my role at the ABA, so it all fit together well. After a few interviews with Kimball, I was fortunate to be hired. 

Russ Rosenzweig: You, Kimball, and the team have been doing something extraordinary. The firm has 120 awards for its pro bono services, and it is a model for other law firms to follow and I want to talk about that for a second because many of our listeners are partners and senior associates at big law and boutique firms. What were some of the things that you did to make pro bono so significant at Winston & Strawn? How can your peers at other law firms emulate the model? 

Greg McConnell: I joined the firm in 2002 and over time we gradually increased the participation of our lawyers when most firms had about 40 or 50% of their lawyers, achieving 20 hours, which is a metric goal that The American Lawyer has set to measure firm participation in pro bono. We were doing fine and keeping pace with most other firms, but it was not extraordinary, and I have to give credit to our current and managing partner at that time.  

About 2011 and we had this come to Jesus moment for the firm, for me, and Tom Fitzgerald. His question to me was,“Are we a great pro bono law firm? That is a tough question to have your boss ask you. Of course, your immediate inclination is to say yes, we are greatI am doing wonderful things. That is an easy question to answer, at least as you would like to answer, but that was not the reality, and I knew that, and he knew that. We were good, but not great. And I said as much. His response to that was “Well, we are doing everything that we can to be a great law firm, not just a good law firm. It is not consistent with that whole ethos that we have a good, but not a great pro bono practice. So how do we take good and make it great? What is the formula here?” After the dialogue it was pretty apparent, we had 60% of our lawyers meeting this minimum metric of 20 hours. How can you say you have a firm-wide culture of doing pro bono when 40% of your lawyers are not even doing 20 hours of pro bono? You really cannot. We committed to the idea of getting all our lawyers to participate, at least at a minimum threshold. Only through full participation of all lawyers at all ranks, in all offices, can you have a culture of pro bono. That was what we thought was the path to embark on and then, as is Tom’s modus operandi, he said, “What can I do? How can I help in achieving that?” I said, “Well, you have the bully pulpit. You have the leadership and if you can impress it upon all of our lawyers, I’m certain it will go a long way.” 

From that time, certainly before then, but after that point, he has become extremely committed to the firm becoming a top pro bono law firm and we’ve achieved that, and he deserves a great deal of credit for that, by embracing it and promoting it and not just giving lip service but taking it very meaningfully. When partners go to their compensation meetings, they talk about whether they have met their pro bono commitment for the year, and  if people have not, Tom is the first one to call people and say, “Hey, we could use your help this year in achieving our firm goals.” He has been an active recruiter and an active leader. Without that, it would be difficult for any firm to achieve great success without having significant support from top leadership within the firm. I cannot take credit for that. That was Tom understanding his role as the firm’s leader and embracing it. That certainly benefited the firm. It has been a terrific ride, but a lot of it has to do with firm leadership undertaking the cause. 

Russ Rosenzweig: It strikes me that there are three components to the blueprint for going from good to great in the pro bono context. One, great leadership at the top that drives the program. Two, excellence around the execution of the program, which was your role. Three, great lawyers that are willing to do it and do an excellent job. It strikes me, that is the blueprint.   

Greg McConnell: That is right, and you know I got to see the difference between 10 years ago and today. Russ, I had conversations with people about why they should do pro bono work 10 years ago. Now, I do not have that conversation. Now the conversation is, What would you like to do? There are many different things. Or they are coming to me saying, I would like to do this or that and, here is a potential client.  What do we think about doing this? It has gone from a position where I was trying to convince people about why, to now trying to help people find the most appropriate opportunity, or to leverage their skills in a way that is going to have the most impact on our communities when they want to help but are not sure what to do or how to get there. The difference from my interactions with our lawyers today from 10 years ago is stark, extraordinary, and fantastic to be a part of. 

 Russ Rosenzweig: It is very encouraging and comforting to hear that top lawyers view pro bono service as its reward and do not even need to contemplate, “Why am I doing this again?” That is great. Greg, tell us please about the Association of Pro Bono Counsel (APBCo). It seems to me somehow in your spare time you have become a fellow entrepreneur and founded a new organization. Tell us about this association. What is it? Give us the how and why. Who is open to membership and what are some of the functions of the Association of Pro Bono Counsel? 

Greg McConnell: I can say Russ without any qualification that helping form APBCo is certainly a career highlight, something I am extremely proud of. Currently. APBCo is a mission-driven membership organization helping law firm pro bono professionals, not only fulfill their role, but help Increase and encourage pro bono work among attorneys in large law firms around the country. It doesn’t have to be a large law firm. You asked me about eligibility. It could be a firm of any size. APBCos membership criteria make certain that whoever is applying for membership devotes at least 50% of their time to pro bono management, as opposed to being in commercial practice. Maybe having the chair of a pro bono committee, which is an extensive and important role, [they] devote 5% of their time. We were looking for people that were dedicated proponent professionals, not just in spirit but in the title, and function. That has been an important part of it. We were looking for people that were professionals at doing this.  

Getting back to the formation, a number of us had been in a role comparable to mine. We met with each other regularly at various conferences, national pro bono conferences, from the American Bar Association. There is an organization that has existed since the early to mid-90s, called the Pro Bono Institute, so we regularly convened at those meetings and it struck us that those meetings were not necessarily quite geared for us. That we would develop the programming if we were the ones responsible for that. It was also this idea that we had a strong understanding of what we wanted out of those meetings and how we could move forward in the profession of being a pro bono manager or pro bono leader. The five of us, Maureen Alger, who’s now at Cooley, Amanda Smith, who’s at Morgan Lewis, Angela Vigil, who is at Baker McKenzie, and Saralyn Cohen who is at Sherman & Sterling. We got together informally and said, “We ought to create an organization to help promote these guys’ goals. It was one of those things where many of these ideas happen. It was after dinner and after a few drinks and getting excited about the concept, and it all sort of fell together.We had a napkin that we were writing and outlining what some of the goals of the organization ought to be.  

The five of us took that forward and created a nonprofit. Then quickly understood this was not an organization about us, but an organization about our community We enlisted our other colleagues at that time. A much smaller community than what it is now. I think the current membership in APBCo is close to 300, something around 280 with representatives from eight different countries. It has expanded well beyond our wildest dreams about what we could accomplish. It is a terrific organization that is a leader in the law firm world, and certainly a leader in the pro bono community.  

Russ Rosenzweig: I am not sure if you are aware of this, Greg, but APBCo and you have been an inspiration for us here at Round Table Group to up our game and try to go from good to great in the pro bono context. By that I mean we had this realization, thanks to you and the Association, that expert witnesses are periodically needed in the pro bono context. We have, in part inspired by you and the Association, developed a policy here in which Round Table Group waives all its usual fees for expert witness research and recommendation. We work hard to introduce great experts for these pro bono cases. I would love to talk about expert witnesses during these podcasts, so I would love some insights from you. your experiences at Winston, and with the Association. How often are expert witnesses utilized in the pro bono context and would it be a good idea to continue to expand our offerings of expert witnesses and pro bono cases around the country? 

Greg McConnellI think, speaking for my colleagues at other firms in a comparable role as mine, that we are thrilled that the Round Table Group and others in your constituent group of experts are willing to jump into the pro bono pool. What we are finding in our overall practice is that the volume of cases in which we are using experts is skyrocketing. In part that reflects how our lawyers are operating on a commercial basis wherein in almost every case that we take on now, we seem to have an expert in our commercial cases. The same is happening with our pro bono. Even some of the more routine pro bono matters we are discovering that we can use an expert to tip the scales in our favor are significant. An example is in a Special Ed case where we have for years [assisted] health organizations like Equip for Equality in Chicago as they have been representing low-income individuals, who are entitled under federal law to an Individualized Education Plan, an IEP. To establish what that is, which is essentially an accommodation plan for a disabled child in the school setting, you have to understand the child’s disabilities and their capabilities, what makes the most sense. The parent has a good idea of that, but they are not a trained professional, and maybe as they are negotiating with the school to set up the accommodations, they may not have the credibility that a third-party expert would have who can say this is the child’s capabilities, [that] they would be best suited to achieve maximum educational benefit through these accommodations because there are manifest disabilities.  It is critical to establish those plans to benefit our clients, so something like that which is not an impact litigation or a major civil rights case. We are talking about a single individual who has a very finite need. The use of an expert is critical for us. We do a lot of those and we may have to start switching tracks because of the cost of experts makes it a probative expense. That is a problem, and we can lend our legal expertise, but to pay upwards of five figures for an expert for even some of the most routine pro bono cases makes us, from a programmatic standpoint, think twice about what we might need to do. Having experts available who not only can help us advance our clients cases, but who might be willing to do it for a reduced rate, allows us to do a lot more of that work in a way that we would not otherwise be able to do it. Getting your community involved in pro bono legal functions is critical. 

Russ Rosenzweig: Thank you for sharing that. That is moving for us. We have always at Round Table Group had this vague desire to serve justice by ensuring that this small piece of our judicial system for expert witnesses is optimized and is practiced at levels of excellence so that every lawyer always has the best and most qualified expert witness on the stand. Round Table Group prides itself just even in the commercial normal context of playing that role, which gives us meaning and purpose, but the pro bono angle takes that to a whole other level.Of feeling like we have mission, purpose, and core guiding principles that are aligned with the needs of the world. It is such an honor to be able to offer our expert witness services in the pro bono context, in this way to law firms like Winston & Strawn. We are grateful to you and Winston &Strawn and the Association of Pro Bono Counsel for allowing us to play that role and to provide that service. Thank you. 

In the world of fellow business owners and executives, and I am in a variety of organizations of peer executives who are running 10-to-100million-dollar companies at various organizations like the Young Presidents Organization and the Entrepreneurs Organization Collective, [there are about] 54 provisors but collectively20,000 executives across these organizations. They collectively have a heart and desire to know There is no such thing as pro bono in the business executive ranks. We do not have a pro bono practice. Everybody has their way of providing service and a lot of my peers were not aware that there are world-class attorneys available in the pro bono context for those in need of such service. They would not know where to go or who to talk to. Maybe they would call their usual attorney perhaps and ask if there is a pro bono practice. What would you advise to my business owner peers who have a person in mind? Have a business in mind? Have a black-owned company in mind they want to help support?  A business owned by women. Any number of social causes, elderly prisoners for example. The list of pro bono work that you do goes on and on. Do they call you? Should they call the Association of Pro Bono Counsel? How would you guide entrepreneurs and business owners who have a heart and want to help people in the pro bono legal context? 

Greg McConnell: Honestly, it is a challenge, not just for the constituency that you are talking about, but even generally for the individual on the street who needs legal assistance. Not somebody who is necessarily trying to help somebody but trying to secure legal services. How do they go about getting it? And there are in most communities one or two organizations that provide legal services. In a place like Chicago, where I happen to be a resident, there are 37 different organizations. In New York, there are 100 or so.  But even then, how do you navigate them? There are online services like LawHelp and others that help people navigate that if you want to do it. That may not be the easiest track to follow. If you have some of your colleagues, Russ, that are interested in helping out and want to know where they can place their marker, I would happily field any of their questions. They can reach out to me and I would be pleased to help direct them within the law firm community, within the network of legal aid, and pro bono organizations nationwide. It can be a challenge to identify how to get into that process, and how to find someone to help. In some ways, having a sherpa or a guide along the way could be valuable, and I would certainly extend an invitation to anyone looking to find a way to help somebody else. They can certainly email me. I would be willing to help for sure. 

Russ Rosenzweig: That is very gracious of you Sherpa Greg. What is your email address, please? 

Greg McConnell: It is gmconnell@winston.com and I am emailing all day, every day, so anybody that would send me an email, just drop your name so that I know they are one of your friends. That will be helpful.  

Russ Rosenzweig: Fair enough. Greg is open to all friends of Russ. Thank you, Greg, for all you do. God blessLadies and gentlemen, take care. Cheers.  

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Go behind the scenes with influential attorneys as we go deep on various topics related to effectively using expert witnesses.

Giving Back Through Pro Bono Work

Greg McConnell, Winston & Strawn

Greg McConnell serves as the Senior Pro Bono Counsel at Winston & Strawn LLP, an international law firm with more than 950 attorneys in key financial centers around the world. As a previous Director and Staff Counsel at the American Bar Association Center for Pro Bono in Chicago, Greg found his calling in helping those who need it the most. In addition to his role at Winston & Strawn LLP, he is also the Founder of the Association of Pro Bono Counsel, which seeks to cultivate the skills of law firm pro bono practice leaders.