Posted on November 16, 2012

The following is an excerpt from The United States of PILCH, a blog by Nathan MacDonald, an Australian attorney traveling in the United States.

I have said goodbye to Chicago and have made it south to Atlanta, Georgia. This is a visit I’ve been looking forward to for some time, as many of my counterparts across the United States have said that I ought to see firsthand the work of the Pro Bono Partnership of Atlanta, an organisation that that works with limited resources however bats well above its average by providing outstanding legal support for Georgia’s nonprofit sector.

Arriving at the Pro Bono Partnership of Atlanta’s office I was worried that its reputation created unreasonable expectations, however it didn’t take long for me to understand why this group has such a strong name in the pro bono sector. Working out of a donated office space within a upper tier commercial law firm in Midtown Atlanta, Pro Bono Partnership operates with minimal staff, but strategically leverages its resources to be a big player in the nonprofit and legal community in Georgia.

L-R, Dawn Murray (House of Dawn), Barbara
Duffy (North Fulton Community Charities), Denise
Leak (Joseph and Sarah Caring for Vets),
and Drew Benton (Project Live Love)

The majority of my time in Atlanta was spent with Rachel Spears, Executive Director of Pro Bono Partnership. I’d heard about ‘southern hospitality’, and Rachel and her team certainly lived up to the hype, welcoming me from the moment I walked through the door. After a tour of the office and a discussion with the staff on the various aspects of the service, Rachel and I talked shop over some authentic southern soul food – fried chicken, collared greens, black eyed peas and sweet tea… both the discussion and the food was amazing!

Perhaps it is because of the smaller size of the organisation, however I feel as though Pro Bono Partnership of Atlanta does a lot of things in a simple yet extremely effective manner. In particular, their use of webinars and face-to-face workshops to deliver education and training to the community sector is terrific. Each month a webcast is delivered free of charge to registered viewers (either in-house or through the use of a volunteer attorney), and that recording will generally stay on the website as a new resource for the community sector’s benefit. They also aim to provide two face-to-face workshops a month – an amazing education campaign that simply would not be possible were it not for the pro bono support of volunteer attorneys in Atlanta, and the ability for Pro Bono Partnership to harness and leverage that philanthropic spirit. A full list of webcasts and workshops previously offered by Pro Bono Partnership is available here.

I was also very interested in the use of a quarterly clinic facilitated by Pro Bono Partnership using in-house attorneys to provide nonprofits with a legal ‘check-up’. This is a model I’ve seen in several other organisations throughout this trip, however Pro Bono Partnership’s links with in-house attorneys appears particularly strong, and this clinic model serves to foster those relationships. I absolutely love the idea of broadening our engagement with corporate in-house lawyers through PilchConnect – the legal issues we deal with for our clients are typically in the ‘wheelhouse’ for these attorneys (contract law, industrial relations, insurance, intellectual property etc), and we have the chance to provide corporate counsel with meaningful pro bono referral opportunities that are both challenging and fulfilling, as well as valuable to the community sector. On a side note, I hadn’t realised Atlanta was the home of Coca-Cola (there is even a Coke museum here), and I’m really impressed by this company’s philanthropic support of the nonprofit sector, including extensive pro bono contributions from their in-house legal team working with Pro Bono Partnership (note: if Pepsi is reading this, I’m sure you’re great too).

That afternoon Rachel took me to an information session she was facilitating at a local community college titled ‘Myths and Realities of Starting and Running a Nonprofit‘. The workshop involved Rachel leading a panel discussion with four of Pro Bono Partnership’s clients, sharing their experiences with an audience about starting and operating a nonprofit organisation. After speaking with so many pro bono attorneys, both nonprofit and commercial throughout this trip, it was great to hear from the clients’ perspectives, and I found it really inspiring to see what these individuals have achieved after identifying an unmet need in the charitable sector. Of the panel of speakers, Dawn had started a shelter for teenage mothers, Denise manages a home for veterans at risk of homelessness, Drew runs a group that promotes volunteerism in the community, and Barbara manages a community support service in the outer suburbs of Atlanta.

Each of these panelists makes amazing contributions to society through their respective organisations, assisting some of the most marginalised people in their communities, and it was great to be present in the room as they told their stories. In each of the presentations, the speakers noted the critical role of pro bono legal representation for their respective organisations, and it brought home to me the amount of hats these people are forced to wear when forming and running a nonprofit. Easing the burden of legal and regulatory compliance through pro bono support makes an incredible difference to the survival of such groups, and while it is ‘behind the scenes’ work that isn’t always publicly recognised, the work that volunteer attorneys do to support the visions of these individuals is priceless.

I loved hearing the client stories throughout this workshop, and as a result I am determined to do better at capturing the feedback of the nonprofit groups we assist at PilchConnect. While these stories serve as valuable resources when it comes to funding applications and outcome measurement, it also reminds us community lawyers why it is that we do what we do, providing valuable perspective to keep us on track.

Reading back, this post seems a bit overly positive, however it’s a reflection of me feeling recharged after a terrific visit with Rachel and the Pro Bono Partnership of Atlanta’s team. Towards the end of the visit, Rachel mentioned that she was amazed at the similarities between our two organisations despite being on other sides of the globe. We each grapple with the same challenges, share the same successes and have evolved along a remarkably similar path. That said, I think Pro Bono Partnership does a lot of things better than us right now, including providing a simple clear message about who they are, and what they do. I have some great ideas about branding and improving our message upon my return, with thanks to our friends in Atlanta.

My final observation from Georgia is that the term “ya’ll” is used interchangeably with a lot of words down here, and in my view has real appeal. I’ve already found myself using it in my vocabulary, and while it may be some time before it becomes accepted during courtroom pleadings, I’ll be sure to bring it back with me to share with ya’ll soon.