Fifty years ago, low-income Washington residents were on their own if they needed legal help for a civil matter.
That all changed with the Economic Opportunity Act, federal funding to help poor people in the U.S. that ultimately led to the development of the first Office of Economic Opportunity legal services in Washington. Today, civil legal aid is given to thousands of Washingtonians, providing justice to people who’ve lost their jobs, protecting victims of domestic abuse, preventing people from losing their housing, and so much more.
We are dedicating the October issue of our NWLawyer magazine to celebrate the profound impact civil legal aid has on people throughout the state. Along with the approach of Pro Bono Week, NWSidebar will be highlighting some of the amazing pro bono work of WSBA members. Keep an eye on NWSidebar for other great stories like this one.
Amazon’s pro bono program—the Amazon Justice League, as it has come to be called—was founded and championed by David Zapolsky, Amazon’s General Counsel. Over the years, Zapolsky has been vocal about his commitment to pro bono work as a professional obligation and as a personal interest. Participating is always voluntary for employees, but the Amazon team has found there is high demand among their ranks to do this type of work.
In this Q&A, provided by members of the Amazon Justice League, John Stone and Kathy Sheehan, vice presidents within Amazon’s legal team and executive sponsors of the pro bono program, provide a glimpse into Amazon’s pro bono efforts and how this type of work is managed within the company.
How would you describe Amazon’s pro bono program?
Stone: Our mission is making it easy for Amazon legal professionals all over the world to provide pro bono services for our communities. In a lot of places, it’s tough for in-house lawyers to find the right training or opportunities. We are trying to do the heavy lifting up front to make sure our legal professionals can get more people access to justice.
Although there is a leadership team that oversees the program, it is really run by many people throughout our legal department. Sometimes they create projects from scratch, like the program we created to support Mary’s Place and its guests. At other times, they leverage existing pro bono programs like the Innocence Project or Kids in Need of Defense (KIND). Everyone in this group is a leader, which is how we operate more broadly at Amazon, too.
Sheehan: As a leader within this group, my job is to make it easy for attorneys and legal professionals to engage with the program. Our program is still relatively new, so we’re really focused right now on making sure we have the right number and variety of opportunities for both attorneys and legal professionals to serve our communities. Our growth was fast and furious—now we need to settle in and sustain the energy we have for this fantastic program.
How is Amazon unique in this space?
Stone: Amazon is unique in its ability to scale everything we do. We can leverage the passion of our growing legal team to greatly expand programs and build whole programs from scratch. But I think the best is yet to come in terms of the unique impact we can make in our pro bono work—we have an opportunity to use our ability to innovate in providing legal services to the pro bono space.
Sheehan: At Amazon, we are metrics-driven. We like to measure the effectiveness and impact of what we build; we’re applying this approach to our pro bono work, too. We set clear goals to help refine our program, and we measure our success against those goals to make sure that we’re efficient, which will allow us to serve more people in our communities.
What kind of volunteer events have you participated in?
Stone: One of my favorite events was our Wills Clinic for first responders. We sit with the first responders at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters for about 30 minutes each and draft their will, and then they can go through all the necessary steps to finalize it and have a signed will finished before they leave. This set of people in our community contribute so much but they are underserved when it comes to legal services. What we can contribute as legal professionals, with our unique skills and experience, is something nobody else can do and it’s important we do this for our community, especially for those who put their lives on the line to protect us.
Sheehan: I recently worked on an asylum case with a young man from Honduras through Kids In Need of Defense (KIND). The whole process reminded me just how important our work is to the lives of real people and how important it is to have access to justice. I also recently attended the Mary’s Place clinic we held at Amazon. To see people come in looking tentative, worried somebody else was going to throw another roadblock in their way, and then watch them realize that we really were there to support and guide them, was really moving.
What would you recommend to other companies who are looking to build up or start a pro bono program?
Sheehan: Treat your pro bono program just like any other business initiative. As John [Stone] says, our success thus far has been a direct result of doing things the Amazonian way: empowering our people to build a program that they own, using mechanisms to ensure we can efficiently produce results, and using data to measure our impact.
Finally, you can’t force people to be personally passionate about something you’re passionate about. Diversifying your pro bono opportunities will ultimately encourage more people to step up and volunteer. Even better, make it easy for folks to set up a program that matches their passion.
I have been refreshed and personally energized by participating in this program and having the privilege of witnessing so many of my colleagues embrace this work and really put their own stamp on the program. It reminds me what we all have in common as legal professionals and reinforces my connection to the legal profession.
Stone: All of the things that make Amazon great make our pro bono program great. We hire smart people, empower and support them, and give them the tools they need to be successful. We have an entrepreneurial spirit, we are creative and innovative, we tap into what our employees want to do, and they lead the way.