Public Interest Law Initiative

Pro Bono Spotlight: United Airlines

Posted on: January 29, 2014

united_3p_h_4c_rAt about a year and half into the development of a formalized pro bono and community service program and committee, United Airlines, Inc. provides a model of what it looks like for a corporate program to develop from an idea to an impactful and sustainable enterprise. What started at the direction and with the full support of the Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary Brett Hart, and developed through the vision of Assistant General Counsel and Chair of United’s Legal Department Pro Bono & Community Service Committee, Steve Fus, United’s Pro Bono & Community Service Committee shows the critical signs that it will live beyond any one individual. The committee is comprised of lawyers and non-lawyers, who are charged with promoting the program, and who have seen the growth of the program realized as individuals take on projects, recruit volunteers, and spread the passion and rewards that come through participating in pro bono and community service work. Fus is clear about his goal to have a one hundred percent regular participation from United’s legal department. “Apart from an attorney’s ethical obligation that comes with the license to practice law, the needs and rewards from giving back to the community and helping those in need are so great that everyone should be given the opportunity and resources to make it a priority,” he explains. With that goal present from the beginning, Fus worked strategically to create a spark in the design of the pro bono program that can ignite significant participation rates, making engagement a major focus.

Several key decisions have shaped the program design:

  1. allow the personal passion of the individual attorney and volunteer to drive the focus, rather than limiting pro bono or community service work to any particular area;
  2. seek out opportunities for attorneys and non-attorneys to work together as a team, stimulating volunteer activity through both pro bono and community service;
  3. develop opportunities and partnerships with organizations that have all the resources, trainings, and support that any individual might need, despite the work being out of someone’s practice area or comfort zone; and
  4. allow individuals to do pro bono or community service work within their work day.

This focus on individual engagement started with a survey to determine areas of interest and continues today with the belief that rather than simply encouraging people to do any particular pro bono activity, the Pro Bono & Community Service Committee can help them find their passion, and promotion and growth will follow.

That growth has resulted in the development of diverse and numerous pro bono and volunteer partnerships and programs to date. Among other activities, United partners with Cabrini Green Legal Aid to staff the Expungement Help Desk at the Daley Center, to represent clients at live call hearings for expungement and sealing petitioners, and to participate in expungement and sealing summits. United will soon be recognized as the Center for Disability and Elder Law’s Corporate Partner of the Year for their participation in CDEL’s Senior Center Initiative. Work with the National Immigrant Justice Center has included participation in Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals clinics and attorneys taking on individual cases. A group of United volunteers staffs the Equip for Equality hotline on a weekly basis and others participate in a court watch program through the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women’s Network at the Domestic Violence Court. Most recently, volunteers obtained training from Ladder Up to support its Tax Assistance Program. The pro bono and community service program extends outside of Chicago, with Houston attorneys taking on veterans’ cases in partnership with Houston Volunteer Lawyers, and volunteers making and delivering lunches with Kids’ Meals.

The spark of passion becomes most obvious, Fus says, after group activities. “After we get together, for example, after mentoring Legal Prep Charter Academy students or after a legal clinic, you see the enthusiasm and effect it has on the attorneys and staff, the realization of the rewards of using their legal skills to change others’ lives for the better. That personalization is not something you get every day in a corporate practice. When you do it yourself, you already know, but to see others get that realization and share that enthusiasm back at the office is when we know the process is working.” The committee has several new projects and partnerships in the works, and understands itself and other corporations as significant resources for volunteerism that can make an impact.

Although the goal of one hundred percent regular participation has not yet been met in the short time since United’s pro bono and community service program started, Fus feels positive about the fact that current participation rates and growth have come about because each individual is personally motivated to participate. Fus admits, “we could probably realize a vision of immediate measured success if we had a mandatory program, or one that made a difference in performance evaluations, but then the individuals might do it for the wrong reasons and won’t have the passion that drives the same rewards and sustainability. It wouldn’t be a disservice, but it wouldn’t be as valuable as when someone does it because they want to make a difference in their community, and it’s that kind of passion that provides the best service to the clients.” The pro bono and community service program at United Airlines provides a model that centralizes the impact to the individual volunteer in order to galvanize the community impact of the program.

View all of PILI’s past Pro Bono Spotlights »

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