How Amazon Went Global with Pro Bono

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For lawyers, volunteering is more than a nicety; it’s an ethical calling. The Rules of Professional Conduct (RPC 6.1) reference the responsibility lawyers have in providing pro bono work by “assisting in the provision of legal services to those unable to pay.”

For the individual lawyer, it can be difficult to make time for pro bono service in addition to a regular full-time job. For a large corporate legal team, the difficulties can stack. Notwithstanding some of these challenges, Amazon lawyers and legal professionals have a long history of volunteer legal service, and the Amazon Legal Department has developed a robust, impactful, and global pro bono program and service culture.

Amazon recently released its first ever Pro Bono Report, which describes some of the pro bono work provided by more than 700 Amazon lawyers and legal professionals across dozens of countries since the program’s formal launch in 2014. In total, Amazon lawyers and legal professionals have provided over 40,000 hours of service through Amazon’s pro bono program in that time.

Amazon Associate General Counsels Sean Croman and James Cuneo answered a few of our questions about how Amazon’s pro bono program was created, how it creates meaningful opportunities for Amazon employees around the world to engage in pro bono service, and how other corporate legal departments might replicate their efforts.

What are the challenges to extending a pro bono program to other countries? How did Amazon overcome those challenges?

We’ve established a truly global program through which members of our legal department around the world can meaningfully contribute to an increasingly wide range of pro bono causes.

In many parts of the world outside the U.S., in-house lawyers are actually constrained in their ability to directly represent clients in a pro bono capacity. We have worked hard to address these challenges and are proud of the results we have achieved, frequently by establishing partnerships with law firms and third-party organizations doing incredibly valuable training and service work around the globe.

How might someone get started in setting up a pro bono program and encouraging others to join?

The best way to get started in setting up a pro bono program is to identify needs in the communities where you live and work throughout the world and identify ways to help address them. At Amazon, we look for programs where we can make a difference at scale, and many of our pro bono opportunities are initiated by members of our legal department who want to get involved in specific causes. We also strive to create a wide variety of opportunities for members of our global legal department to learn about and engage in pro bono service—both in-person and virtually.

To encourage others to join, we regularly provide trainings and clinics for people to learn about and engage in pro bono service, many of which are virtual to enable engagement and participation from wherever team members are located. We also strive to support – and celebrate – team members throughout the world who identify new and innovative ways of serving the needs of their communities. That entrepreneurialism has long been a key attribute of Amazon – and is equally applicable to our pro bono service efforts. We proactively share information about pro bono opportunities through a variety of means, including emails, newsletters, and a dedicated internal website. We also celebrate the positive impact our pro bono work has on individuals and communities in need – and the people who help make it happen – during our annual Pro Bono Week and throughout the year.

What are some common mistakes that might inhibit a robust corporate pro bono program?

Most in-house legal departments haven’t traditionally been organized to support pro bono work at scale in terms of providing needed training, malpractice insurance, and structured engagement opportunities. With that in mind, we strive to make it easy for our employees throughout the world to volunteer; this includes arranging training programs, creating a wide range of engagement opportunities throughout the year, and frequently partnering with law firms and other third parties that are similarly committed to this impactful work.

Are there any tangential benefits to a company whose legal team provides pro bono services to their community?

Providing legal services to those unable to pay is not just an ethical obligation for lawyers and legal professionals; it also gives companies an opportunity to learn about and serve their communities in new and meaningful ways. Further, employees engaged in pro bono service work find it both personally rewarding and a great opportunity to interact with their team members and other colleagues.

Our program is run by employees who volunteer their time to organize pro bono opportunities and drive engagement by volunteers, and one great aspect of our program is that it provides leadership opportunities to these employees. We have a pro bono task force consisting of members of our legal department who manage the nuts and bolts of the program, including running our annual pro bono week, managing our internal pro bono website, and promoting the program internally.  Several employees also serve as liaisons to partner pro bono organizations, helping arrange volunteering events and driving engagement.

What is the most important piece, or pieces, of advice you would give to an individual or team attempting to start a successful pro bono program like Amazon’s?

Most attorneys and legal professionals are naturally motivated to engage in pro bono legal services. With this in mind, key goals of our pro bono program include making it easy for our employees around the word to engage in pro bono service opportunities, providing support and resources for the new and innovative service ideas our team members regularly identify, and encouraging participation in a wide range of opportunities to serve the communities in which our team members live and work.