Arizona attorneys make it a practice to help nonprofits

Business News | 18 Sep |

The desire to help others burns bright at the heart of every nonprofit. Whether it’s finding affordable housing for those in need or equipping children with lessons for them to excel in life, nonprofits work tirelessly to make underprivileged Arizonans’ lives better and brighter. But when the nonprofit needs legal help, who looks out for them? Arizona attorneys who work pro bono.

Like any other organization, nonprofits will encounter situations where they need to seek legal counsel; but unlike for-profit organizations, many nonprofits do not have the funds to do so, and any dollar expended to resolve the issue or acquire legal counsel is a dollar less to pursue the mission.

David Engelman

Steven Berger

Tight budgets often land nonprofits in a tough situation where the organization has to weigh the needs of the organization with the needs of the mission. That is where pro bono attorneys come in and tackle the nonprofits’ legal issues for free.

David Engelman, a co-founder of Engelman Berger, has done pro bono work for the entirety of his 43 years in law. It’s all about helping those who are in need, he said.

There has always been a dire need for pro bono work for nonprofits and individuals, according to Engelman. But then the recession hit, money grew tight, and the need became greater. In recent years, more law firms are creating pro bono policies, and the State Bar of Arizona outlines a desire for each attorney and firm to pursue pro bono work in its Code of Conduct.   

“I think for the projects where we provide legal services,” said Steven Berger, a co-founder of Engelman Berger, “we certainly fill a gap for persons or nonprofits who wouldn’t really be able to afford the kind of service we provide normally. They can use that money for more important things, like putting food on the table or their core mission.”

Often, nonprofits seek attorneys to rewrite bylaw or revise policy. Other times, attorneys may evaluate land or other items left to the nonprofit from a will.

But the relationship between a nonprofit and an attorney can run so much deeper. Some attorneys sit on the board of directors of the nonprofit, while others may have longtime clients that are a part of the organization.

A chain of positivity

Pro bono work plays a vital role for a nonprofit. Like any organization, it may run into legal roadblocks. Other times, having an attorney on hand offers peace of mind that the nonprofit is well covered if it has questions or needs.

Habitat for Humanity Central Arizona consults with attorneys to help the organization run smoother, and the attorneys also act as consistent team players for the nonprofit.

Scott Klundt

Jay Zweig

Habitat for Humanity Central Arizona is an organization that connects the folks in need in the Phoenix area with affordable housing through building or renovating homes. Eligible applicants with Habitat will put a minimum of a couple hundred hours of “sweat-equity” into building their houses and pay an affordable, non-profit loan.

The organization consults Scott Klundt, a lawyer with Quarles & Brady and the firm’s Phoenix office pro bono coordinator. Klundt, named one of the top 50 pro bono attorneys in Arizona by the Arizona Foundation for Legal Services and Education in 2017, has worked with the nonprofit for years.

Habitat Central Arizona uses Klundt to review its loan documents each year, said Maribel Saucedo, the director of family services at Habitat Central Arizona. The market often changes, and Habitat wants to make sure its documents are current and compliant with the law, which is what Klundt helps out with, Saucedo added.

Klundt said, “We as attorneys are so blessed to be able to do what we do and get paid well for it, frankly. It’s a chance for us to give back.”

And give back he did: In 2017, Habitat for Humanity Central Phoenix saved over $100,000 by consulting Klundt and his pro bono team at Quarles & Brady, according to Saucedo.

Klundt said it’s rewarding to be able to use his talents, knowledge and expertise to help nonprofits navigate the legal issues they face.

When nonprofits save money that would have otherwise been spent on legal fees, resources are freed to enable nonprofits to focus on the people they are serving. Without pro bono aide, nonprofits would face even more challenges.

“The fact that they really take the time to understand Habitat, and they helpfully connect the dots for us –I think that has more value than the money that we’re saving,” Saucedo said.

Nonprofits work to give a voice to the voiceless, and that even includes animals. Anthony Merrill of Snell & Wilmer worked with the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros (IPSMB) since 2004, particularly in its quest to preserve and save the wild horses and burros in Arizona after the Rodeo-Chediski Fire in 2002 when the United States Forest Service wanted to round-up and remove horses it deemed “trespass animals” from the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.

“We stopped the roundup and got an order in place requiring the forest service to take various actions to protect the herd and to introduce a territory management plan,” said Merrill, who was listed in the Top 50 Pro Bono Attorneys in Arizona in 2006. “They’re still working on the perimeters on that, but the horses are still there wild and running free as the historic symbols of the American West.”

He worked as the lead counsel and handled the litigation and the case’s final settlement, and he also communicates with the forest services as needed.

Making a difference

“Pro bono attorneys are worth their weight in gold,” said Karen Sussman, the president of ISPMB. “What Mr. Merrill does is what every good American should do. We should be helping each other.”

Anthony Merrill

The average hourly fee an attorney in Central Arizona charges is roughly $438, according to the 2015-2016 United States Consumer Law Attorney Fee Survey. Considering that federal cases are often long, drawn out processes, the amount of money that her organization would have had to pay would have been hefty.

But Merrill never asked for a dime, and the money that would have been spent in court was spent on protecting the animals.

“If you have to go to court and you’re in federal court, you’re looking at a lot of money expended,” Sussman said. “Having a firm and having an attorney willing to do this is what all Americans should be doing for each other. We couldn’t really do what we are doing without our help from our pro bono attorneys.”

Pro bono work also helps nonprofits operate internally.

Some nonprofits receive training from lawyers to ensure the workplace environment for employees is a safe, healthy community. Jay Zweig of Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner trains nonprofits’ employees and leaders in sexual harassment prevention.

The training aims to explain the law and help the nonprofit align its culture with the law, while ensuring the employees are empowered.

Zweig works with nonprofit employees to speak up and address situations that make them uncomfortable, even if it doesn’t directly involve the employee.

Nonprofit employees are especially vulnerable to sexual harassment, Zweig said. This type of training helps nonprofits avoid lawsuits.

A greater calling

But what drives an attorney to offer legal services for free? For some, it is their norm.

“For me, it was part of my growing up,” Berger said. “As a kid, I was always involved in various youth groups doing everything from the Jerry Lewis Telethon to collecting for various charities or doing a carwash to raise money for something.”

Shannon Clark

For others, watching the nonprofits pursue their mission and help others succeed is all the payment they want.

“It’s really rewarding to see people empowered to take control of their lives again,” said Shannon Clark, a shareholder with Gallagher & Kennedy who is a Fund Development Committee Member for ICAN’s Positive Programs for Youth.

But a common sentiment shared among these lawyers is the idea that with the degree comes the responsibility. As Clark puts it, it is a lawyer’s way of “paying the social rent.”

“In my view, lawyers have a responsibility to give back to the community, and people do it in different ways,” Zweig said. “One of the things that has always been important to me is giving people access to our justice system, whether or not they can afford an attorney.”

As a few pointed out, that responsibility lies on the shoulders of everyone fortunate enough to have an education, but the way lawyers give back to the community in this sense is unique, given their unique practice.

“You know as lawyers, we have a skill and an understanding that other people might not have, so it’s good to give that back, especially when access to the justice system may be cost-prohibited,” Merrill said.

And while their services may be free, pro bono attorneys reap rewards that go beyond the touch and feel of money.   

“I can’t imagine my life without the community service work I do,” Berger said. “I get a lot of fulfillment from it, I meet wonderful people, I have been educated on what people in the trenches do on the front lines to fight poverty, to fight disease, to help people.” 

Though the need for pro bono work is greater than before, the “want to do” pro bono work continues to grow and beats in the heart of the law community.

“A lot of lawyers are sharing with me how enriching their pro bono experiences are, and how fulfilling they find it and how satisfying they find it,” Engelman said. “I think that’s catching on in our community, and that’s a very positive thing.” ν

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