Standing Behind the Good

Law departments have begun to change the way they do pro bono. Beyond merely supporting worthy causes, companies are now organizing “signature” initiatives and rolling them out company-wide.
STARTING A BUSINESS is always fraught with challenges — and hopefully a decent modicum of satisfaction, too — but try to imagine what that feels like for a teenager embarking on what is his or her first foray into entrepreneurship. That’s the situation at the Toronto District School Board’s “Oasis Skateboard Factory,” a west-end alternative school program that is part of Oasis Alternative Secondary School, where students can earn high-school credits by creating their own brand and running a skateboard business.

It’s here where the ability to tap into the wisdom of mentors — learning the ropes about potential business and legal pitfalls — can work wonders. No surprise, then, that students at the school are eager to tap into the collective expertise of volunteers from the Weston Group Legal, through the pro bono Start-Up Youth program. The program, which features guidebook materials and in-class seminars, aims to assist students in areas such as entrepreneurship, business law, financial literacy and communications in a business environment.

The program is unique in Canada — the brainchild of Pro Bono Ontario and Weston Group Legal, which in 2015 met to devise a brand new project that, at its heart, mirrors the organization’s values. Salvatore Frisina, Executive Chairman Weston Group Legal Pro Bono Law Program and Senior Vice President, Legal Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer, PC Financial, says the company “wanted to create a project that’s true to the Loblaw corporate social responsibility motto of giving back to the communities where we live and work. We also wanted to focus on children, as this approach is consistent with the President’s Choice Children’s Charity.”

Start-Up Youth is known as a “signature project.” In other words, it was created from the ground up to reflect the values of the organization, says Lynn Burns, Executive Director of Pro Bono Ontario (PBO). She says, to her knowledge, this is the first such “from scratch” law department project in Canada.

In-house counsel have a long and valuable history of providing pro bono services in Canada, for example, as duty counsel in courts. But she’s hoping the Weston Group Legal program may signal the start of an emerging trend as law departments look to deliver “signature pro bono” in a targeted and organized way.


The program draws from the expertise of legal departments across the spectrum of Weston Group Legal: George Weston Ltd., PC Financial, Loblaw Cos. Ltd., Shoppers Drug Mart, Choice Properties Ltd. and Weston Foods. “We thought there would be maybe 15 per cent involvement from our legal departments across the country,” says Cerise Latibeaudiere, Project Manager Weston Group Legal Pro Bono Law Program, and Director, Legal Counsel, PC Financial. “But since we rolled out the idea of the program to Weston Group Legal, we’ve hit over 50 per cent volunteering to participate in one way or another.” In part, this is due to the steady support from senior management, she says. “The team is grateful for this opportunity and for the chance to give back in a meaningful way.”

The project is just getting off the ground. At press time, volunteers from Weston Group Legal have held only one mentoring session at each of the two Toronto schools. Still, the intensive work undertaken since 2015 to get the project off the ground has involved many volunteers — producing the required materials, researching, writing and designing guidebooks, and preparing course materials for in-class seminars. Each component of the program requires students to complete exercises and encourages questions around the topic and how it relates to them and their ambitions.

“We designed the project in such a way that people could participate at whatever level or amount of time they felt that they could give. And we made it clear that no contribution to the project is too small,” says Frisina, “whether it’s a Toronto-based lawyer interacting with students in the classroom or a lawyer in Edmonton doing creative for a guidebook.”


Similarly, BMO’s Legal and Compliance Group are engaged in a signature pro bono project that aligns with the organization’s corporate values, says Sophia Ruffolo, Head of BMO Private Bank Global Compliance. Known as the “Advance Care Directive and Power of Attorney Project,” BMO Legal and Compliance Group employees have delivered these services to patients of Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, and will be delivering future services to patients at Mt. Sinai Hospital, both in Toronto.

The program was launched in December 2016 through a clinic at Pro Bono Ontario’s downtown office, situated near Princess Margaret. Ruffolo remembers a client who had a serious chronic illness. Her doctor suggested she create a power of attorney. “Until we set up the partnership with Pro Bono Ontario and Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, she understood the need, but didn’t know what to do about it. What was so compelling for us was that, after she met for 45 minutes with one of our pair of volunteers during the clinic, she was thankful. [She was also] grateful when the paperwork was done, but mainly, she was relieved.”

John Uhren, Senior Counsel and Vice President, BMO Capital Markets and co-lead of the project, says one of the objectives of holding a clinic was “to try to meet the most clients in the shortest amount of time to have the largest impact.” That day, 29 employees from BMO head office assisted approximately 19 clients. “We were over-subscribed in terms of the number of volunteers that did the training and wanted to participate,” he says.

BMO’s signature project is inspired, in part, by a BMO Harris Bank project that’s been running in Chicago since 2015, partnering with the Center for Disability and Elder Law. “One of the Center’s programs is an initiative whereby both attorneys and non-attorneys are trained to go out to senior centres to prepare powers of attorney and living wills on-site for senior citizens in need,” says Theresa Duckett, Associate General Counsel, Canadian P&C, who volunteers for the project.

One of Duckett’s co-volunteers was Ruffolo, who moved to BMO’s Toronto offices in 2015. Finding there was no comparable program through which she could volunteer, she brought the idea north. At BMO, what she found was overwhelming support from both senior executives and new colleagues.” We looked at the community need, at the engagement level of our employees and our corporate values, and they were all aligned.”

Duckett says that, in the United States, corporate pro bono is primarily done by tapping into existing projects through various organizations, including non-profits or charities. This essentially leverages work that’s already underway. “Really, for us, it’s a matter of going out to the various organizations, and figuring out what’s going to be a good fit for us,” she says. “What BMO Canada is doing is unique in that there wasn’t [already] a program to join. They had to create it.”


Both BMO and Weston Group Legal emphasize that, as far as team building and employee engagement go, these kinds of signature projects have the potential to include a broad range of employees. BMO’s project, for example, relied on pairs of volunteers composed of one lawyer and one non-lawyer. Julie Ouellon-Wente, Associate General Counsel, Canadian P&C and one of the co-leads of the project, says that, in assessing the project’s desirability, one appealing feature was the significant number of BMO employees who could potentially be involved.

“There’s a lot of pro bono initiatives where we would only need one or two resources, so we were trying to find opportunities where you could have lawyers and non-lawyers work together collaboratively, and where you could have many teams involved.” In fact, when putting together the two-person teams, a lot of thought was given as to how employee development could also play a role, she says.

Among the volunteers were lawyers who had a lot of experience in powers of attorney, other with less. By putting them together, says Ouellon-Wente, this provided employee development opportunities for the more experienced persons, by having them share their knowledge. “If I were talking to in-house lawyers in other organizations who might be contemplating these kinds of signature pro bono projects,” she says, “one of the benefits I’d point out is the chance to help people in your organization build mentorship skills.”


BMO decided to kick off the project internally in October 2016, two months prior to the actual clinic, with a morning reception that included the general counsel, senior executives, some board of directors of Pro Bono Ontario and any volunteers who wanted to attend. Afterward, there was a training session on powers of attorney, conducted by an external lawyer, Risa Awerbuck from Torkin Manes LLP.

The turnout of volunteers at the launch, held at 8 a.m. on a Friday morning, far exceeded expectations, says
Uhren. Sixty people attended the initial meeting, “a huge turnout for a training launch.” He says the secrets to success were “employee motivation coupled with strong leadership support — from a call to action from our General Counsel, to access to communication channels to highlight events, managers encouraging employees to participate, involvement by leadership, write-ups in our newsletter after events, to employee recognition for volunteering.”

As for the training, Uhren says it was a great opportunity to learn more about the legal aspects of powers of attorney. That being said, some nervousness presented a challenged, as with any technical training, especially since volunteers came from a cross-section of lawyers and non-lawyers, “which we wanted to have from a team-building perspective.

“Consequently,” he says, “closer to the clinic date in early December, there was a second, more practical training, in terms of the human side of what we’d be doing, answering some very practical questions about the conversations and how we expected the day to go.”


PBO’s Burns is optimistic about the future of signature pro bono. She’s been in discussions with several law departments, and in some cases with departments and partner firms, that want to explore the concept. One potential partnership is with Aon Canada Inc. and Dentons Canada LLP, says Douglas Stewart, a partner with the firm in Toronto. He says he was initially approached by Shaun Miller, Chief Counsel at Aon Canada Inc., and Andrea Harnal, Corporate Counsel at Aon, and while it’s very early days, Stewart is enthusiastic about the concept of a joint signature pro bono project.

Miller, for his part, says Aon colleagues are continually encouraged to volunteer their time and give back to their local communities. He says a number of lawyers on the team have expressed an interest in providing pro bono legal work. “We’re excited about the opportunity to identify a valued project and, with the assistance of Pro Bono Ontario and Dentons, implementing a joint signature project that will make its mark on the community and provide a rewarding professional and personal experience for our team members.”

Stewart says individual lawyers at all levels at Dentons are now, or have been, involved in a variety of pro bono projects: for example, the educational law project with PBO assisting parents with children with special education needs at expulsion hearings;  or as small claims duty counsel in partnership with in-house counsel from Royal Bank. A signature project, says Stewart, who is involved in supervising associates’ pro bono activities, would provide another avenue through which associates “could become involved, gain expertise and a sense of fulfillment.”

As in-house counsel and law firms consider ideas that might lend themselves to pro bono work, the longstanding Unaccompanied Minors project serves as illustration. A four-way partnership among McCarthy Tétrault LLP, the Law Group of RBC, Pro Bono Ontario and the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, the project engages lawyers who act as designated representatives for unaccompanied minors arriving, for example, at Toronto Pearson International Airport or Canadian border crossings such as the Windsor, Ontario, bridge. The lawyers at McCarthy and RBC work independently of each other on their own cases; joint training is held every few years.

Shane D’Souza, a partner with McCarthy in Toronto, says the project was launched in 2005, and RBC in-house counsel came on board a few years later. Since its inception, the initiative has aided almost 250 children. Many times, they’re seeking refugee status, he says, and while not all claims are successful, “you can guarantee you’ve made a difference in a child’s life.” The children’s histories are very moving, says Theresa Le Blanc, Assistant General Counsel, Royal Bank of Canada, who has assisted a number of unaccompanied minors over the years. “Many of the cases have had a really good outcome.” It’s heartbreaking, she says, when they don’t.


With one successful pro bono clinic in hand, BMO’s Ruffolo says it has a better sense of how the process should work and is planning future clinics. Bringing legal services to their communities, she says, dovetails with their social responsibility mandate. “The reality is, people don’t necessarily have access to legal services, whether it’s because they’re in a hospital or they don’t have the means to leave their community. And so it’s very meaningful for us to bring those services directly to the client.”

As for Weston Group Legal, based on its incredibly positive experience with the Start-Up Youth program, it’s forging ahead on another signature program. In March 2017, the group, in conjunction with the Toronto District School Board, launched “Know Your Rights.” The program was developed to support parents of elementary students, by providing them with resources on landlord-tenant law, tax, human rights and employment law, wills and estates. Volunteers design pamphlets and prepare course materials for the group sessions and are available for one-on-one clinics to provide further support.

Bev Cline is a freelance business and legal-affairs writer in Toronto.