When attorney Johna Rollet took on the case of a Center for Prevention of Abuse client last year, it was an opportunity to do something she doesn't often get to do. Order of protection cases are not typical at Caterpillar Inc., where Rollet works as corporate counsel. She also is the current chair of the pro bono program in Caterpillar's Legal Services Division, now in its fourth year and growing. While fairly new, the Caterpillar pro bono program recently received a Global Counsel Award from the International Law Office, a legal update service organization for companies worldwide.
When attorney Johna Rollet took on the case of a Center for Prevention of Abuse client last year, she saw a woman not only in need of an order of protection but also an advocate.
By the time the case ended, her client was a stronger woman, in charge of her life and ready to move forward.
"The change in her was tremendous. It gave her hope, relief that there was somebody to stand up for her," said Rollet. "I'm glad I was able to help her find her voice. I don't get that chance very often."
Probably not. Order of protection cases are not typical at Caterpillar Inc., where Rollet works as corporate counsel.
She also is the current chair of the pro bono program in Caterpillar's Legal Services Division, now in its fourth year and growing.
"We have a robust program, with 173 volunteers that include lawyers, paralegals and support staff. Of those, 138 are in the Peoria office," Rollet said. "So far in 2009, we've done 700 pro bono hours."
While fairly new, the Caterpillar pro bono program recently received a Global Counsel Award from the International Law Office, a legal update service organization for companies worldwide.
The term "pro bono" comes from the Latin term "pro bono publico," which means "for the public good." Thus it is the term applied to professionals, particularly in the field of law, who donate their services for the public good.
While one can find law firms that urge their associates to do pro bono work, it isn't common among corporate in-house legal staffs, said J.P. Kumar, also corporate counsel at Caterpillar and immediate past chairman of its pro bono program.
"Some companies have done it, but mostly you will find it done by lawyers in private practice. When we started it here, the enthusiasm from the staff was there from the start. It still is," Kumar said.
The program was the vision of James Buda, Caterpillar's general counsel, who wanted his division to give back to the community. As a result, the pro bono program began working with several groups, including the Center for the Prevention of Abuse, South Side Mission, Friendship House, Crittenton Centers and local police and fire departments to offer whatever services are needed. Local arts groups, including the Children's Symphony, have benefited as well.
Besides assisting those in need of orders of protection, those services include other areas of family law. They also include tax issues, wills and estates, lease agreements, veterans issues and immigration laws.
In addition, the staff will conduct daylong clinics, often in partnership with law firms, Prairie State Legal Services, or not-for-profit agencies that cover a variety of legal issues.
"There are legal problems we recognize are not Caterpillar or corporate issues, but they are never unimportant to the people who have them," Rollet said. "Some of the most fundamental things about life, things many people take for granted, are brought to bear."
Kumar said he did pro bono work in private practice before joining Caterpillar "and the ability to serve the public has always been important to me."
Doing something that makes a difference to those without the means to do it themselves is satisfying, he added.
"It's a nice complement to what we do every day, a refreshing change of pace. It's dealing with individuals, helping individuals. For us, that's quite different, even though Caterpillar is a collection of people. This work helps us better relate and communicate," Kumar said.
Rollet said those in the program believe pro bono work makes them better at their jobs. It also, she said, has brought the legal staff closer to the local legal community, which is important when working with judges. "The judges are very open to our program. They see our participation as helping streamline processes," she said.
Martha Herm, executive director of the Center for the Prevention of Abuse, said the Caterpillar program is helping bridge the gap between agencies such as her own and the judiciary.
"Often, by the time a case gets to the courtroom and in front of a judge, the abuser has a lawyer and the victim does not. The victim being able to have someone at their side makes it a more fair process. We are very much advocates of this program," she said.
Herm said the Caterpillar staff working with her agency had to not only spend much time being trained about the state laws on abuse, but "they had to learn about the cycles of abuse, as well. It usually is as an emotional of an issue as it is legal, so that's necessary.
"We've always been about fighting imbalance in power and control. That's what abuse is. This helps tremendously," Herm said.
The pro bono program starts with a coordinator, currently paralegal Celeste Poole, and a committee that reviews requests and decides which cases its lawyers and staff can take on, Kumar said. It will not take requests from individuals, working instead through Prairie State and other agencies.
The staff must get its work for Caterpillar done first, then do pro bono work on its own time. Therefore, he said, the committee wants to make sure nobody is stretched too far. That's a bigger task these days because the legal services division, with the other cutbacks at Caterpillar during the recession, is using outside legal help much less than before.
Caterpillar's pro bono program is divisionwide, where it has legal offices in Downers Grove, Nashville, San Diego and Miami. It is working to extend it to its legal staffs in other parts of the world, Kumar said.
Also, Caterpillar is working toward establishing an outreach service to help other corporations that want to set up their own pro bono programs.
"We're looking for opportunities to help others," he said.
Paul Gordon can be reached at (309) 686-3288 or email@example.com.