Supporting Pro Bono: Kathy McGrath

Attorney Kathy McGrath, Assistant Vice President and Senior Corporate Counsel at Liberty Mutual, was first connected with Lawyers Clearinghouse over a decade ago, when lawyers from Mintz Levin invited members of the Liberty Mutual Legal Department to join them at a Legal Clinic for the Homeless at Pine Street Inn.

Shortly after Kathy participated in her first clinic, it became clear she would be a great addition to the Clearinghouse Board of Directors. She was already on the board of the Volunteer Lawyers Project and was interested in housing and homelessness—two core components of the Clearinghouse mission—so she readily accepted the invitation.

Today, Kathy juggles a number of volunteer roles in her spare time, continuing to serve on the Clearinghouse Board while also acting as the chair of the Supreme Judicial Court’s (SJC) Standing Committee on Pro Bono. She also coordinates Liberty’s pro bono program, which has grown immensely since she joined the company over twenty years ago.

When she first started at Liberty, Kathy says the pro bono program was a lot less structured. Attorneys were encouraged to do pro bono work, but there wasn’t a lot of guidance and many felt they couldn’t handle the time commitment. Now, there are a variety of ways for employees to get involved, enabling them to pick the opportunities that work best with their schedules.

Liberty attorneys still participate in the Clearinghouse’s Legal Clinic—joining lawyers from Mintz Levin twice a year at area homeless shelters—but now the Legal Department has also partnered with Citizen Schools, Discovering Justice, Medical Legal Partnership | Boston, the Boston Bar Association’s Financial Literacy Program, the Youth Advocacy Foundation, and the Association of Corporate Counsel’s small claims mediation project. Liberty also recently launched a partnership with PAIR to work on immigration /asylum cases.

“We’ve created a lot of ways for people to get involved,” Kathy says. “It gives people experiences they wouldn’t otherwise get in their regular practice, a chance to meet people they wouldn’t ordinarily meet, and the opportunity to put their law training to good use.”

As Chair of the SJC’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono, Kathy is very involved in spreading awareness about pro bono throughout the Massachusetts legal community. Members of the committee regularly visit each of the state’s nine law schools, encouraging students to seek out pro bono opportunities and recognize that it is an important part of a lawyer’s professional responsibility. The committee also created the Adams Pro Bono Publico Award, which is presented annually to attorneys, law students, schools, firms, and other legal offices and departments that have demonstrated an “outstanding and exceptional commitment to providing volunteer legal services for the poor and disadvantaged,” and established an Honor Roll for lawyers and law students who volunteer a significant amount of time to pro bono efforts.

In addition to awareness, the committee takes active steps to make pro bono opportunities more accessible. They recently worked with the Board of Bar Overseers and the SJC to update one of the professional responsibility rules, which had been interpreted to mean that in-house attorneys who were not licensed to practice in Massachusetts could not conduct legal work separately from their employer. The rule was amended to allow these attorneys, who make up 20% of the state’s in-house legal community, to participate in pro bono.

Currently, the committee is looking into a different rule, which places a limit on how many years a retired attorney can practice pro bono in a state where they aren’t licensed. Kathy says the committee would like to amend the rule so attorneys who retire to Massachusetts can more easily provide legal services.

At the end of the day, pro bono makes a difference no matter how attorneys decide to get involved, and it’s not only important for lawyers and their clients, but for the judicial system as a whole.

“Our judicial system is very hurt by people trying to navigate it without the help of a lawyer,” Kathy says. “The whole system can only work at its best if both sides of the dispute are represented.”

So how can in-house attorneys and their legal departments get started? By reaching out.

“Talk to an outside law firm. If you use an outside law firm that already has a robust pro bono practice and a pro bono coordinator, that is a great way to take a baby step” Kathy says. “Or pick an organization that is really focused on mentoring and helping pro bono volunteers, like Lawyers Clearinghouse or Volunteer Lawyers Project. Call up the executive director and say ‘We’d like to get involved.’”

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