Interview with Andrea Fitanides, California Pro Bono Manager, Covington & Burling
Jason Luu
Andrea Fitanides |
Posted Friday, October 3, 2014

Andrea Fitanides is the California Pro Bono Manager at Covington & Burling LLP. Previously, she was Supervising Attorney and Pro Bono Manager at the Justice & Diversity Center of the Bar Association of San Francisco (formerly the Volunteer Legal Services Program). [EDITOR’S NOTE: Andrea Fitanides formerly supervised Jason Luu in her former position]

JL: You’ve been working in pro bono for quite some time now, and the ABA Model Rules and the State Bar of California encourage, but don’t mandate, the completion of at least 50 hours of pro bono work. How can law firms encourage the completion of those hours?

AF: I think that the most important thing a law firm can do is really encourage pro bono from the top down. I think it’s really important to have the most senior people in the firm really invested in that work. Here at Covington, we’re fortunate to have not only national chairs for our public service committee, which is where a lot of our pro bono work and support comes out of, but also, the leadership within the firm even outside of those public interest committees, such as the firm management committee. So, I think it’s really important for attorneys within the firm to know that it’s not only a written policy, but it’s something that’s really supported within every level of the firm . . . and again really within the leadership and firm management. For example, in our Fall Pro Bono newsletter, it opens with a letter from the head of our executive management committee talking about how much support there is within the leadership for pro bono as an important part of what the firm really believes and cares about.

JL: I also noticed that Covington’s pro bono program is highly ranked, especially by The American Lawyer magazine. Is there any special trait or practice that Covington endorses to get to that level of pro bono work?

AF: I would say that Covington has a very long history of pro bono. In the past decade of big law firms really institutionalizing pro bono, I would say that our focus on pro bono even preceded a lot of that increased national focus. So we’re fortunate to have a long history, and I think that helps our culture of encouraging everyone to do pro bono. We also are fortunate to have four different pro bono staff , all attorneys. And I do think having dedicated professional staff focused on pro bono and making sure we have the right opportunities for our attorneys is really helpful . . . and I’m also glad to see that becoming more and more widespread as a role at a law firm.

JL: Are there certain opportunities better suited for big law firms, and are there certain opportunities not appropriate for big law firms?

AF: I would say that our pro bono is quite diverse, so it’s wide-ranging in terms of the issues . . . from death penalty work to civil rights class actions to helping individual clients with restraining orders. I think the biggest challenge for big law firms is some types of work tend to have more conflicts. An example of that is a lot of consumer issues. I know with the financial crisis, there were a lot of challenges around consumer protection issues. So when, for example, someone was getting sued by a creditor, or there was an issue with their mortgage . . . oftentimes, law firms have conflicts because there are a lot of large banks and other financial institutions on the other end, which many large law firms represented. The types of matters less well suited for law firms tend to be matters where there is likely to be a lot of conflicts because larger institutions are involved.

JL: There are certain barriers for individual attorneys to actually complete their pro bono commitments. What sort of barriers are there within a big law firm for associates, or partners even, to do pro bono and how can law firms alleviate those barriers?

AF: Unsurprisingly, people’s very busy schedules and workloads are the biggest challenge. And I think that’s true of attorneys in many contexts. I think it has to be a tradition . . . where people really believe they should and want to do pro bono, even though they’re busy. And that it’s an important part of their practice, and an important part of their development. It can be a great opportunity to develop skill sets and have more agency in matters that you might not get in the first couple of years at a big law firm. And most importantly, that it’s your professional responsibility and a meaningful thing to do. So, I think that while people are busy, I think it’s important . . . and there is time if you make the time to be involved in pro bono work and other aspects of the legal profession. I think it’s important to prioritize that. And with everyone’s busy lives, it’s just a question of choosing to prioritize it and balance it with the rest of your workload. 

I do think an important piece of that is to have a firm that really supports your pro bono work.  So, when an associate goes to a partner and says, “I’ve got a pro bono trial coming up,” and the firm supports that . . . and works with that associate, and treats that pro bono matter as an important matter . . . just as any of our paying work is. I think that’s an important aspect to people feeling comfortable fitting it into their otherwise busy workload. 

JL: Can you go into more detail about how individual attorneys can benefit from doing pro bono?

AF: In addition to the fact that pro bono is some of the most interesting and fulfilling work you can do as an attorney, it’s really a great way to develop your legal skill sets. Most legal services [that] partners big law firms work with do have trainings and support for the type of pro bono work you’ll be doing. So, there’s a lot of professional development that comes with that . . . and there are often opportunities to take a much greater leading role on a pro bono matter than you might on a paying matter for a firm client. So, for example, I’ve seen first year associates be able to appear in court and run a landlord-tenant trial themselves, with appropriate supervision, and be the one standing up in court and making the arguments. And I think that’s far less common with a corporate client. And on the transactional side, an example would be working one-on-one with a nonprofit and helping them with a merger. 

JL: On the other end of that, how can law firms themselves benefit from encouraging pro bono work?

AF: The professional development piece, law firms do benefit from that because it’s a chance for associates to get the training and experience to really thrive. It’s also a reality that pro bono is a part of national law firm rankings. It’s something to be considered in that way. And I believe that when law firms have a strong pro bono culture, associates will have a better work balance and are going to find some fulfillment as professionals . . . and hopefully lead to a more satisfying overall career, and a better culture at the firm overall.

JL: Many law firms have successfully teamed with in-house, corporate legal departments to collaborate on some pro bono projects. How can law firms begin that process of forging these relationships?

AF: I think in-house departments are really excited to do pro bono. I mentioned earlier . . . there’s been a lot of development with law firms institutionalizing pro bono. And in-house legal departments are starting to develop that as part of their culture as well. In my experience, when a law firm and a legal service provider propose a pro bono opportunity to an in-house department, for the most part, they are very receptive and excited to be involved in that work. 

The key with in-house departments is to have a good structure in place. Usually, for in-house departments, that means a limited-scope opportunity. Often, a clinical opportunity can be a good fit . . . also need to make sure that malpractice and other practice issues with licensed, out-of-state in-house attorneys are considered. Also, make sure that the appropriate training and supervision is provided. But there is a lot of interest in pro bono from in-house legal departments . . . it’s a matter of providing the right opportunity.

JL: For firms not at Covington’s pro bono level, how can big law firms increase their pro bono presence?

AF: It’s really important to have dedicated attorney staff that are managing the pro bono program. There are a lot of pieces to it. And it’s really important to have people who are really focused on developing the right relationships with legal services providers and looking at opportunities that people are interested in. So, I think that internal staffing piece is a huge part of developing it. And that top-down encouragement is necessary, to the extent that partners are showing up at the legal clinics, and there’s management talking about pro bono at firm meetings, and fall associate orientations, and including it in the summer associate program so that people know from the very beginning that this is something the firm really believes in. Those are all really helpful pieces in increasing pro bono.

JL: Thank you so much for your time, Andrea. I really appreciate you taking the time out of your day to meet with me.