Legal Departments Of The Year: GE Pro Bono Efforts Help Nonprofits, Indigent And Others
In 2010, when Brackett B. Denniston III, senior vice president and general counsel of General Electric, received an award for pro bono work, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg praised him as a "pro bono champion."
Denniston, who works out of the company's Fairfield office, is the head of an in-house staff of about 1,200 GCs, 20 to 25 percent of whom work in Connecticut. Of that number, he said, well over 50 percent of them engage in pro bono work.
"I think it's enormously beneficial," Denniston said of pro bono work. "Part of a balanced life is to have opportunities to give back to a community. At the same time it develops skills."
In honor of all the pro bono work that GE lawyers do, the Connecticut Law Tribune will honor Denniston's troops with the Legal Departments of the Year Pro Bono Award.
"What we've tried to do is approach pro bono work as if it's a major initiative for the legal organization and apply the same process, rigor and measurements as we would for any significant initiative," said Denniston. "Our goal was 50 percent participation which we've exceeded by a substantial amount."
Though GE is an international company, its pro bono initiatives are not the same everywhere. But the constant is that its lawyers get involved in the communities in which they work. For instance, GE has joined forces with the Norwalk Community Health Center. Many patients at the center need legal help for problems that led to their health issues, whether stemming from an eviction, their power getting shut off, or something like lead paint exposure. GE lawyers have assisted in 45 cases so far.
Consistent with its pro bono efforts, GE also just recently joined up with Chief Justice Chase Rogers to launch the Legal Corps of Connecticut. Under the program, corporations will cover the salaries of law school graduates, who will go work for legal aid organizations for two years. The fellowship program will start out with two lawyers, sponsored by United Technologies Corp. and GE. Rogers envisions the program growing within a few years to 10 or more participating corporations.
"We're a diverse organization; what works in Japan or China won't work in Connecticut," said Denniston. "Our philosophy was to let different flowers bloom. We wouldn't have one size fits all."
GE is heavily involved in the Pro Bono Partnership, of which Denniston sits on the board of directors. The program started in 1997 and matches lawyers with a slew of non-profit organizations in need of legal assistance, ranging from housing and real estate cases to environmental work.
More than 900 lawyers from numerous corporations are involved with the partnership. The program assists organizations in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
GE lawyers have also donated their time to KIND – Kids in Need of Defense. The organization, whose founders include the actress Angelina Jolie, helps children seeking asylum in the United States from being deported to their home countries, where they may be subject to imprisonment, mutilation and perhaps death.
The importance of pro bono work was stressed upon Denniston early on in his career. Denniston explained that when he was a young lawyer in Boston, he volunteered his time for an organization ran by Esther Lardent, founder and first director of the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association, one of the nation's first organized pro bono programs.
Denniston called Lardent "the most notable pro bono leader in country."
"It was a great experience," Denniston said.
Years later, after Denniston had been at GE for awhile, Lardent honored him with an award from an organization she founded called the Pro Bono Institute. It was in receiving the award in 2010 that Supreme Court Justice Ginsberg praised him as a "pro bono champion."
"That was a thrill, a real thrill," said Denniston. "[Ginsburg's] a very impressive and gracious person."
Denniston's right-hand man when it comes to overseeing pro bono work at GC is Senior Labor and Employment Counsel Mark Nordstrom. He also chairs the Pro Bono Partnership.
"I think Brackett made it clear that this is something he views as a positive attribute of a GE lawyer as not only an ethical obligation but as a way to give back to the community. And you learn from everything you do, including pro bono work," said Nordstrom.
Nordstrom, who is admitted to practice law in New Jersey and New York, but works out of Fairfield, explained that previously GE house counsel not admitted in Connecticut couldn't do any pro bono work that involved practicing law. That changed on January 1 of this year, when the state altered its rules to allow in-house lawyers not licensed in Connecticut to perform pro bono work under the direction of a legal services organization or the direct supervision of another attorney admitted in Connecticut.
"Before that, it had to be the softer pro bono work," said Nordstrom.
By that, he means lawyers helping out even if what they're doing is not technically the practice of law. For example, GE lawyers help out with what they call "Street Law." In that initiative, attorneys go to inner city high schools and talk to students about the way the law works.
"You're not practicing law, but you're using education and experience to bring home civic lessons of being a law-abiding citizen to people that might not get that type of teaching," said Nordstrom. He added that pro bono speakers use "real life examples that are of interest to students."
Another endeavor the non-Connecticut licensed GC's get have been involved in is a program called Dressed For Success, which assists indigent job-seekers by helping them get better clothes for job interviews and providing them with career development skills.
"I don't know of anybody who's taken on a pro bono case and regretted doing it," said Nordstrom. "It tends to be a positive experience. It's also a good opportunity to work with outside counsel in a way that's a little different than the typical outside counsel relationship. That also is, I think, very helpful… People who take the time to take on a pro bono assignment feel very rewarded and good about it."•