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How to Start an Award-Winning Pro Bono Program: A Conversation with Bloomberg’s Valerie Farkas

by Ariana Javidi October 21, 2019

In honor of Pro Bono Month and the City Bar Justice Center’s upcoming 2019 pro bono awards, we sat down with Valerie Borden Farkas, Senior Counsel at Bloomberg and one of our top 2019 pro bono award winners. We talked about her impressive legal career which includes pro bono and public service work and how she jump-started an award-winning pro bono program at one of the world’s leading financial technology companies.

Q: What spurred your interest in pro bono?

VF: I’ve always been passionate about public service, ever since the start of my career right out of college, when I worked for several nonprofit arts organizations and government agencies. When I joined Bloomberg nine years ago, I was immediately drawn to the incredible philanthropic spirit that is intrinsic in the company’s culture. Yet while Bloomberg’s general volunteer program was and continues to be amazing and robust, it didn’t speak to the unique skill set held by the team of legal and compliance professionals in Bloomberg’s Legal Department. As our Department matured to offer broader and deeper capabilities to the company, I began to wonder, why don’t we have a pro bono program at Bloomberg? So I started brainstorming with David Levine, our General Counsel, who was wonderfully supportive and positive about the idea. Our team spent a year laying the groundwork – doing research, building a network, establishing a project pipeline – and then, in 2016, we formally launched the program in very close partnership with our corporate philanthropy team.

We started small, with three projects: the City Bar Justice Center’s Neighborhood Entrepreneur Law Project and its Veterans Assistance Project, as well as CUNY’s naturalization application project. Almost immediately after program launch, we quickly learned that this was nowhere near robust enough to meet the enthusiasm and commitment of our team. So we focused on building out the pipeline with more partners and programs and just kept building momentum. Over three years since launch, we now have about two dozen projects and program areas, and we have this wonderful problem where certain clinics “sell out” like a rock concert less than ten minutes after volunteer registration opens online. It shows how passionate our team is about pro bono service.

Since program launch, the Bloomberg team has performed over 10,000 hours of pro bono service, and we are thrilled to have a 2019 participation rate of 80% for our Department globally (based on a team of approximately 200 legal and compliance professionals in size). It’s been amazing to see the team become so engaged and excited, and it is especially gratifying to celebrate when our volunteers secure a positive outcome for their clients—securing disability benefits for a veteran that lifts them out of poverty, negotiating a commercial contract to help a micro-entrepreneur launch a business, or obtaining asylum status for a refugee. This is what makes pro bono work so meaningful, as you know your work is directly impacting the lives of underserved members in our communities.

Q: What advice do you have for someone trying to start a pro bono program in their Legal Department?

VF: First, having the “buy in” and advocacy of your General Counsel is critical for the success of the program. David Levine not only supported us throughout the launch of our program, but he also leads by example by directly engaging in pro bono work and encouraging colleagues to do so as well.

Second, particularly for an in-house legal department, having the support of your corporate philanthropy or social responsibility group is also critical. These colleagues are already making a meaningful impact in our communities and can offer invaluable support, expertise and access to partners that directly contribute to the success of a pro bono program.

Third, I strongly encourage you to network within the local pro bono community to learn how other legal departments and law firms started and continue to manage their pro bono programs. It’s a really generous community, full of passionate people who are committed to the work, eager to collaborate together, and invested in one another’s success. This network can help you build the business case for pro bono and can also help you avoid reinventing the wheel—the challenges associated with starting a pro bono program are not necessarily unique to a particular organization, so I encourage you to learn from others who have already solved for these common challenges.

Finally, it’s important to ensure that the opportunities in your program pipeline are diverse and flexible. Everyone has different passions and interests, so casting a wide net in terms of the kinds of pro bono opportunities you offer will maximize engagement and, importantly, broaden the impact within the community. We try to offer opportunities that span a wide range of issues, levels of commitment, and schedules, as well as programs that do not require a JD so that everyone on our team who wants to engage in pro bono can do so.

Q: Why do pro bono?

VF: As lawyers, we have an ethical obligation to give back to our community. It is a privilege to be members of the New York state bar and to have jobs that allow us to help New Yorkers in need. Also, employers should recognize that a robust pro bono program aids recruitment, retention and team-building. Quite frankly, pro bono is a great morale boost because it feels good to help others!

Q: What skills do you think young lawyers learn from handling pro bono cases?

VF: Pro bono work is an excellent way to develop new skills, such as drafting contracts, conducting client interviews and engaging in courtroom advocacy. It also helps you make a name for yourself and demonstrate your commitment and work ethic to your employer and to the broader legal community. And if you get involved in launching and coordinating a pro bono program, you will develop strong leadership skills as you learn how to manage volunteers across different teams and functions within the department.

Q: How do you juggle a busy career with pro bono?

VF: If you’re new to pro bono work, start small and do something that aligns well with your interests and your schedule. Identify a project, mark it on the calendar and just make it happen. You won’t regret it!

Ariana Javidi is the Communications and Executive Coordinator for the City Bar Justice Center.

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