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Push involves in-house lawyers in pro bono work

Corporate counsel will work on economic development cases for LSEM clients

Mary Tucker of Wells Fargo, Laurie Hauber, Dan Glazier, Jim Guest, Jan Alonzo of Unigroup and ACC chapter president, and Mark Kaltenrieder of Thompson Coburn stand around client Ashley Nanney of Feed Your Vitality. Photo By: KAREN ELSHOUT

Mary Tucker of Wells Fargo, Laurie Hauber, Dan Glazier, Jim Guest, Jan Alonzo of Unigroup and ACC chapter president, and Mark Kaltenrieder of Thompson Coburn stand around client Ashley Nanney of Feed Your Vitality. Photo By: KAREN ELSHOUT

Legal Services of Eastern Missouri is about to get an infusion of new volunteer lawyers.

The St. Louis chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel, a trade organization for in-house lawyers, is teaming up with Thompson Coburn and LSEM to represent clients of the legal aid group’s Community Economic Development Project. That project, which is nearly 2 years old, provides legal services to low-income entrepreneurs or to nonprofits that serve the low-income population.

“We’re really excited about the opportunity there for our members as well as [about] helping people who are really in need,” chapter President Jan Alonzo said.

In June, Thompson Coburn hosted a meeting to kick off the partnership. It drew about 20 corporate lawyers, which is “more than enough for us to get started,” said Jim Guest, the director of the Volunteer Lawyers Program.

“If we can send out two [cases] a month to ACC attorneys, that’s a huge success,” he said.

Ashley Nanney benefited from the volunteer legal work performed by George Miller, general counsel at Sigma-Aldrich Corp. Nanney founded Feed Your Vitality, a company that provides healthy prepared meals. She said Miller, among other things, drafted volunteer agreements and employment agreements to protect the company’s proprietary information, conducted a thorough trademark and name search and reviewed the company’s marketing materials, including its website, to ensure the company wasn’t misrepresenting itself.

“It’s daunting to consider opening a business and trying to understand the legal ins and outs,” she said. Thinking back on the legal help Miller provided, Nanney said, “It’s an absolute gift to have someone champion your cause that way.”

Alonzo said her organization had tried for roughly a decade to find some way for its members to do pro bono work. In the past, lawyers who wanted to volunteer for LSEM most likely would have been called on to appear in court, which is something in-house lawyers don’t have much experience doing.

Without that experience, in-house lawyers aren’t comfortable taking on such things as orders of protection and landlord-tenant cases, Alonzo said.

But ACC lawyers are well-suited to do the kind of work the Community Economic Development Project was created to do, and Alonzo thinks the effort will work.

“It uses the skill sets that are a better fit for the experience of corporate lawyers,” she said.

Legal malpractice coverage is also an issue, said Mary Tucker, chairwoman of the chapter’s Pro Bono Committee. A few years ago, Tucker went through the process of getting malpractice coverage for members who wanted to do volunteer legal work only to realize the chapter “didn’t have the infrastructure to create our own community economic development program out of thin air,” she said.

Now that LSEM’s Community Economic Development Project is in place, the ACC lawyers have a place to find cases and will be covered by LSEM’s malpractice coverage, Tucker said.

Volunteer lawyers can help by directly representing clients, by conducting legal workshops for nonprofits in various areas of the law, by answering prospective clients’ questions, by helping to train staff members at collaborating organizations to recognize potential legal issues and by auditing the operations of existing nonprofits.

Laurie Hauber, manager of the Community Economic Development Project, said about 250 prospective business clients have called LSEM during the last two years and that roughly half have become clients. Some of those who didn’t become clients didn’t meet LSEM’s income requirements, but most just weren’t ready for legal services, she said.

Hauber estimates the additional volunteers would enable LSEM to take on about 30 more clients. She also said she hopes several lawyers will participate in the educational outreach portion of the program.

Thompson Coburn’s involvement is a big plus for the ACC lawyers, Alonzo said. The firm’s lawyers will partner with ACC lawyers as a way to provide backup. Mark L. Kaltenrieder, the chairman of the law firm’s pro bono committee, explained the law firm’s role.

“Putting a large firm like Thompson Coburn behind [the ACC lawyers] gives them those resources to take on a matter that they might not be able to do a hundred percent of,” he said.

For example, an in-house lawyer might handle strictly labor law matters and take on a pro bono case that also has intellectual property issues. The Thompson Coburn lawyer partnering with the in-house lawyer would be able to pick up the IP matter, he said.

Dan Glazier, LSEM’s executive director, calls the partnership with the ACC and Thompson Coburn “one of those classic win-win-wins.”

The true winners will be the clients, he said.

“This is a way to further expand and extend the work we do through our Community Economic Development Program [and] benefit from the expertise from the corporate counsel attorneys who know so much about this area of the law,” he said.

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