Community support comes in a number of ways.
For Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell & Berkowitz PC and the attorneys in its 20 offices across the Southeast U.S. and Washington D.C., community service comes in the form of on-the-ground work.
Based in Memphis, Baker Donelson is the 64th largest law firm in the U.S. with more than 650 attorneys and policy advisers. And as those attorneys focus on more than 30 practice areas, they also use that expertise to serve the communities the firm works in, whether it’s pro bono work or using the firm’s leadership to drive initiatives that lead change.
“We are a firm known for being community supporters,” said Liz McKee, internal communications manager for Baker Donelson. “It’s a commitment across the board.”
In 2014 the firm doubled the billable hours allotment for pro bono work from 50 to 100, meaning attorneys can receive credit for up to 100 hours annually toward their billable hour budgets when they perform pro bono work.
“It signifies to people we’re committed to pro bono work,” McKee said. “It isn’t lip service. We’re putting our money where our mouth is, so to speak.”
As a firm, in a given year Baker Donelson contributes more than 20,000 hours to pro bono legal services worth more than $6 million.
Carla Peacher-Ryan has been with the firm for 32 years. When she first started as an associate the requirement was that everyone complete 100 hours of community service work, but that has evolved through the years into a more intentional effort focused on pro bono legal services.
The pro bono services the firm’s attorneys offer are geared to his or her practice area. Peacher-Ryan is a transactional business attorney, which means no landlord tenant action or family law cases, for example. Instead, she works with organizations such as Community LIFT and River City Capital where she serves as general counsel.
Part of Community LIFT’s mission is to provide loans to underserved neighborhoods and smaller businesses that aren’t ready for bank loans or don’t have access to capital.
“I help with their contracts,” Peacher-Ryan said. “It’s pro bono work, but it’s also my specialty area.”
Peacher-Ryan helped form Community LIFT and River City Capital, as well as assist in getting their 501c3 status.
“We review their contracts, whatever they may need,” she said. “Obviously not having to pay for legal services gives them the ability to concentrate on what they do best.”
In addition to pro bono hours, Baker Donelson employees are given eight paid hours of service time each year. Those hours might be spent reading to schools, working on a clean-up project through Clean Memphis or rocking babies at Regional One. The hours are meant to be used during the workday, and if employees serve on the Baker Cares or Baker Green committees they get an additional eight hours.
The Baker Cares committee is made up of employees from all the firm’s offices. They help organize activities for the firm’s attorneys and staffers to give back. Baker Green works on organizing environmental projects, including an Earth Day clean-up efforts..
One of the biggest ways the firm has contributed to serving the community is through the work of Buck Lewis, a shareholder in the Memphis office and former president of the Tennessee Bar Association who has been deeply involved in increasing access to justice.
It all started in 2009 when Tennessee established the Access to Justice Commission. The concern was that some families couldn’t attend walk-in legal clinics at libraries and courthouses. The idea of using technology to create an online legal clinic was born.
“When we launched this five years ago I spent half my time answering questions for clients by email,” Lewis said. “So it always made sense to me if answering questions online for paying customers why not pro bono. And if it works in Tennessee it should be easy to replicate in other states.”
Users post questions online and volunteer attorneys answer them. Baker Donelson programmers wrote the software.
In the fall of 2014 the idea was expanded to take the Tennessee model that had been launched in half a dozen states and take it nationwide. In May 2015, the American Bar Association Pro Bono Committee voted to take the program nationwide.
Since that time, Lewis has pitched the idea to states. So far, the population of participating states is 300 million. That could mean some 75,000 low-income Americans who will be able to have legal questions answered by volunteer attorneys, for free.
Baker Donelson has donated the cost to build the nationwide site, which is on schedule to launch in August.
“I wouldn’t have been comfortable doing this nationwide four years ago but now we know it works,” Lewis said. “We have the experience of it working in other states. The lawyers love it because if maybe they’re taking leave to raise a child or a senior lawyer it gives them opportunity to do pro bono online.”
It’s also a good avenue for corporate attorneys who maybe can’t appear in court representing anyone other than his or her employer.
There is concern that an online program could cannibalize some states pro bono phone programs.
But Tennessee also has a phone program, and Lewis said the two complement each other well.
There aren’t concerns about unlicensed attorneys providing legal advice; credentials are checked before joining the program. The lawyers see questions arranged by category to choose what feels most comfortable.
“I wouldn’t do family law but I would feel comfortable with landlord questions,” Lewis said. “That’s better than a clinic where you can get thrown some real curveballs. When I go to Ben Hooks (Central Library) helping a client I can’t say sit hear while I research it. But online you can. You can talk to colleagues and compose an answer.”
Baker Donelson has been recognized for the work of its employees in creating this online legal clinic.
Firm-wide, Baker Donelson attorneys and staff select an organization to support each year. This year the 20 Baker Donelson offices support food banks in those respective cities. In previous years it’s been legal aid organizations, Wounded Warrior Project, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Ronald McDonald House Charities.
“A lot of companies align their strategy on other factors,” McKee said. “We believe putting it in the hands of employees creates more ownership and I think they get more out of it if they have a say in choosing the organization we support each year. By supporting different organizations each year we expose the entire firm to different causes.”
Baker Donelson attorneys and staff also support local schools. In Memphis that means Whitney Elementary School in Frayser where employess read to pre-K students twice a week, supply items for a clothing closet, provide donations and also purchase school supplies and uniforms and adopt children at Christmas to provide gifts.
Much like the work for Baker Donelson attorneys with other organizations, the relationship with Whitney came about thanks to it being something an employee had an interest in based on knowing a faculty member.
“There were a lot of families in need and we felt like we could help,” McKee said. “It organically grew from there.”
Now, when there is a need an email goes out asking forclean clothes, coats, school supplies and other items, including toiletries and uniforms. .
Baker Donelson staff and attorneys also spend a couple days a week reading to the pre-K class.
“A lot of our volunteers will tell you we get more out of it than the organization does,” McKee said. “It helps us grow that bond with our firm and the community. It makes good business sense to support community efforts but it’s also who we are, it’s part of our culture.”
That’s part of the makeup that has placed Baker Donelson on the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list. The commitment to community is part of that, McKee said.