BASF: Making a Smorgasbord Of Public Interest Work
Melanie Brown doesn't do pro bono work to get awards—she does it because she's always been committed to helping others. BASF's assistant general counsel and her colleagues do, however, garner kudos for their volunteer work.
Brown, a chemist by training and patent attorney by trade, says pro bono work has made her something of an expert in nonprofit law as well.
"There are not that many opportunities to do pro bono IP work," she said. Instead, by volunteering through the Pro Bono Partnership, Brown most often helps nonprofit clients with issues such as organizing corporate governance policies and filing for tax-exempt status.
As the BASF legal department's pro bono coordinator, she has successfully used her powers of persuasion to "suggest" that her colleagues "might" want to take on "certain matters"—adding with a chuckle that they sometimes "find it hard to say no."
In 2013, 23 of the company's 30 New Jersey-based attorneys worked on 49 matters for the Pro Bono Partnership, totaling up 147 volunteer hours. BASF support staff typed and revised contracts, and prepared trademark applications and other documents for pro bono clients.
The Partnership, which puts lawyers together with nonprofits seeking free legal advice, named Brown Corporate Volunteer of the Year in 2011. BASF's legal department won the award in 2012.
General counsel Matt Lepore, who joined the Florham Park, N.J., chemical company in January, is a pro bono booster. "It's very important, as the leader of a big legal department, to make it clear that I believe in this, and that if you want to spend time" [volunteering], I will support this effort," he said.
Lepore began his volunteer lawyering in the mid-1990s as a young associate at King & Spalding in Atlanta. He's answered questions on Law Day, written contracts for people getting a home through Habitat for Humanity—and, as a personal commitment, swung a hammer to help build a Habitat house.
"Attorneys feel good about pro bono work," he said. "It makes…[them] feel good about their jobs. ...Doing work outside your day job is an opportunity to go to court and an opportunity to interact directly with clients that many legal departments and big-firm attorneys don't always get."
Last year, Melanie Brown helped the Pro Bono Partnership organize the first "Smorgasbono," in which 15 nonprofit clients gathered at BASF for an afternoon of legal advice. Seven BASF attorneys worked alongside lawyers from Jackson Lewis, Paul Weiss, Becton Dickinson and Medco.
The name Smorgasbono was Brown's brainchild—"It just popped into my head," she said— and it never fails to bring a smile.
Before the attorneys met their clients, they attended a one-hour presentation by the Partnership on laws and ethical considerations relating to nonprofits.
Rather than getting answers to one type of legal question, as is often the case at pro bono gatherings, those attending the four-hour Smorgasbono client's session could discuss a variety of concerns. Their representatives spoke one-on-one with attorneys about issues ranging from contracts to insurance, intellectual property to real estate.
Clients included the Interfaith Food Pantry of Morris County, Morris Habitat for Humanity, the Great Swamp Watershed Association, Meals on Wheels and the Timothy Murphy Playhouse, among others.
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