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Deepening the pro bono bench

Jennifer McAdam

Jennifer McAdam

According to a letter she wrote to her future self in the 8th grade, Jennifer McAdam knew she wanted to be a lawyer pretty early on.

Well, sort of.

“I think it said that I wanted to be a part-time lawyer and come up with a treatment for AIDS,” she recalled with a laugh. “I think I also wanted to be a model.”

McAdam may not have pursued her middle school dreams of medical research or walking a runway, but the path she chose into the law worked out well. As a senior counsel at the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, the Kansas City native is in a key position to help insurance regulatory authorities in every U.S. state and territory.

The Cardozo Law School graduate also is finishing out her year as president of the Mid-America Chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel, which is based in Kansas City and serves central and western Missouri, eastern and central Kansas, and the Omaha, Nebraska metropolitan region.

In retrospect, the law may not have been a surprising choice for McAdam, 43, whose initial interest was kindled by her father, a municipal judge. When she eventually faced a choice between earning a master’s degree in public policy or a law degree, she ultimately decided on the latter because she believed it would help her to accomplish more of her goals.

“I set out to be in public interest law actually,” she said, noting that all of her internships revolved around public interest or public service. “I guess I was an idealist, and I wanted to use the law to improve society and obtain justice for those who needed it.”

McAdam began dealing in the complex world of insurance litigation during a stint at what was then Lathrop Gage, but she felt the pull of a desire to become a corporate counsel.

“I had a couple of friends who worked at the NAIC who I had been talking with about potential opportunities there,” she recalled. “When I saw an opportunity arise, I definitely wanted to apply for that to go in-house rather than working at a firm.”

McAdam found that she likes the corporate environment and the variety that it provides.

“I feel like being in-house there is more of an opportunity to be collaborative not only with your own legal department and other attorneys within your group but also with the business side of the company,” she said. “It is a good mix of corporate law as well as the public policy work that the NAIC does.

Of course, there are other perks to in-house life as well.

“Let’s be honest. The real reason is because the hours are better,” she said with a laugh.

Not that she’s afraid of long hours — even unpaid ones. One of McAdam’s particular passions has been her pro bono efforts that go well beyond simply giving her own time. She’s also made it her mission to help push pro bono work more generally within the in-house world — for which Missouri Lawyers Media honored her earlier this year at its annual Women’s Justice Awards.

“When I went in-house I realized that, while things were just getting started at the larger law firms, there was nothing happening with in-house attorneys,” she said of the move for more pro bono work. “At least [there was] nothing in the Kansas City area, not in a concerted effort with the in-house community or on a bigger scale.”

It was an issue she wanted to address.

“That was something I was really interested in pursuing,” she said. “I did some research, and I made a presentation to the ACC board telling them about the importance of pro bono and what other ACC chapters were doing.”

What she saw was that many other chapters had pro bono committees, so she founded one within the Mid-America ACC chapter in the wake of a survey indicating that its members had an interest in doing such work. The chapter also has partnered with other groups to help sponsor a legal clinic for nonprofit organizations.

“I think as attorneys that we have this duty and obligation to assist those who need it most,” McAdam said. “I feel like pro bono work is a critical and key part of the justice system — making sure that everyone gets the representation that they need with their legal issues,  whether that be personal family law issues or small businesses that are just getting started or nonprofit groups that need assistance.

“Not everybody has access to the resources to pay for big firms to represent them, but we’re hoping that they can get those same services in a pro bono capacity,” she added.

The clinic finally came to fruition in mid-2019.

“It took a lot of meetings and collaboration and phone calls and planning,” she said. “First, we held an information session for the nonprofits because this is something that was going to be completely new to them. We wanted to introduce them to what sort of questions our attorneys would be prepared to answer for them.”

That was followed by two-hour, face-to-face meetings with participants. to explain, “We’re not going to be able to solve all of your problems, but we can solve a handful of discrete issues,” she said. “That went over very well.”

A second iteration of the clinic was planned for this year, but as with so many other things, COVID-19 has thrown a wrench in the works. McAdam, who will wrap up her term of ACC leadership at the end of the calendar year, has called her stint in office during this unusual time “interesting and challenging”. Still, she’s tried to find advantages in working remotely, a circumstance that has allowed more contact with other parts of the chapter’s far-flung territory.

“We’re just trying to take advantage of the fact that we can do things virtually now and reach a lot more of our members,” she said. “We are headquartered in Kansas City, and a lot of in-person meetings were Kansas City-based. Now we’re able to reach out to everybody in the chapter, which is nice.”

Katie Cronin, now the pro bono manager at Stinson, has known McAdam for years since Cronin previously worked with Legal Aid of Western Missouri. Stinson partnered with ACC on the clinic, and Cronin said McAdam’s involvement in pro bono work is no surprise to those who know her.

“It is an important aspect of who Jennifer is, giving back to the community,” said Cronin. “She does these things for no personal gain. It is just something that is important to her to make sure that what she does through her work gives back to the community where she lives.”

But the most important thing is that she helps to spread that ethos to others, Cronin said.

“She’d always done a lot of pro bono herself, but what she is to be complimented for is leveraging that, going beyond just her own individual work and encouraging all of those in the corporate counsel world to engage in that work, too,” Cronin said. “She really leveraged her involvement with pro bono to pull a ton of additional people into that work.”

That can be a particular challenge in the in-house environment where attorneys work more behind the scenes than in the courtroom.

“Sometimes there aren’t as many pro bono opportunities that are a great fit for them, but one thing that they have been really helpful on is that they are great at advising smaller nonprofits in the same way that they would advise their own corporation,” Cronin said. “She’s really going above and beyond to get that word out and really deepening the bench and the capacity for pro bono work in the city by opening up pro bono to a bunch of new attorneys.”

Kara Vinderup, a fellow senior counsel at NAIC, said McAdam is driven by a basic sense of fairness.

“She’s very interested in bending the arc toward justice,” said Vinderup, who began working with McAdam in 2014. “I would say that, within our small legal division, she is definitely a standout in keeping us on track on looking for ways to contribute.”

Calling her a “rare combination of power player and really nice person,” Vinderup said McAdam’s drive is her most impressive attribute.

“I don’t know how she does it all,” she said. “I’m just amazed at her energy level.”

Another senior counsel with the group, Casey McGraw, described McAdam as a dedicated worker with a good heart. He knows her as both a coworker and a neighbor because they live in the same area.

“I enjoy being around her, not only as a colleague and a coworker, but I also consider her to be a really good friend,” he said.

McGraw noted her problem-solving abilities.

“She’s never one to shy away from big, difficult projects even if we don’t know what the outcome of the project is going to be,” he said. “She doesn’t shy away from taking it on, trying to put together a plan and figure out what the solution is.”

That’s true of much of McAdam’s work, he added.

“I think she enjoys being able to use her degree and her talents as a lawyer to help others,” he said.