Clifford Chance is one the world’s largest law firms, with significant depth and a range of resources across five continents. The firm harnesses the skills and expertise of its people, often delivered alongside grant funding from the Clifford Chance Foundation, to deliver positive and sustainable action in the communities around the world where they do business. Clifford Chance works in long-term partnerships with some of the world’s leading NGOs and civil society organizations in order to maximize impact.

We sat down with Celeste Koeleveld, the firm’s US Pro Bono Counsel, to discuss her experience in the pro bono space, as well as trends and insights she has noticed across the field.

Tell us about your background. How did you get into pro bono management?

When I joined Clifford Chance, my focus was primarily on white collar criminal defense and regulatory work. However, when pro bono opportunities that involved potential litigation, regulation and enforcement angles came along, they would be sent to me to supervise. I found that the pro bono work was always very compelling because of the clients, the issues and the ability to allow the associates to work independently.

How do you encourage your lawyers to take on pro bono?

We try to offer opportunities that our lawyers have an affinity for. Pro bono combines that passion with an opportunity to develop skills and work directly with clients.

Associates, especially junior associates, are often staffed on very large billable matters where they might work on one piece of the matter. Pro bono work offers associates an opportunity to take the lead and more easily see their impact. This combined with a great cause encourages attorneys to continue to seek out pro bono opportunities regardless of time limitations.

Recently, I had a pro bono matter where I was supervising a first-year associate. A few times the attorney asked if I wanted to join a client meeting. I let her know that I was around if she needed me, but that this was a chance for her to take charge and lead the meeting with the client. This was a great learning opportunity that really energized her.

When you look across the firm’s pro bono program, are there certain areas of focus you tend to gravitate towards?

We try to offer a variety of opportunities that we think would be of interest to people in the firm. Sometimes those matters come along by happenstance. Other times, we get matters from working with longstanding partners of ours. We have long-standing relationships with organizations such as Humans Rights Watch and My Sister’s Place.

We also have a partnership with Immigration Equality and International Center for Advocates Against Discrimination (ICAAD). ICAAD is a very small organization, but they do very interesting work all around the globe. They find opportunities to fight discrimination in a very focused and analytical way. This gives lawyers a chance to get involved in a project that’s halfway around the world and brings together people from different backgrounds, sectors and offices.

How do you build confidence in lawyers taking on pro bono matters outside of their day- to-day practice?

Pro bono is a wonderful mentoring opportunity. I supervise many pro bono matters and always make myself available to discuss the associate’s approach. I typically will ask “well, how do you think you should approach it?” From there, I can provide commentary because I’d rather elicit the associate’s thoughts first and then provide feedback. Pro bono provides the opportunity to spend time with an associate, share some of my experiences and help them learn how to approach a project in a constructive way.

I also always like to emphasize the importance of simply being prepared. This helps lawyers feel comfortable and confident in a meeting. Even the most experienced people take the time to plan – they sit down and write things out, create outlines, they strategize, talk to other people. This will typically make for a more successful outcome. Being prepared builds confidence.

What is the pro bono case/outcome you are most proud of?

Let me start by saying, it’s hard to pick a favorite. I’ve had a lot of different experiences with pro bono clients and each brings things that I really value along with a lot of job satisfaction. The work that I’ve done with ICAAD has been particularly rewarding. Run by 3 or 4 people, The organization started when the founders said, “I think we can make a difference by using data analytics and focused research to identify projects where we can fight discrimination around the world.”

The organization’s work is unique and different. I’ll give you an example. One project with them involved helping island nations in the Pacific where nuclear testing took place in the 1940s and 1950s. These are atolls where huge damage was done, entire populations were displaced and they’re still suffering the effects. These nations have Compacts of Free Associations (COFAs) with the United States, and it was time to renegotiate those COFAs. The project involved researching how these nations could position themselves in negotiations. For example, what kinds of demands could they make in terms of economic justice, nuclear justice, environmental justice, reparations. It was very interesting – we applied concepts of international law, studied the region, learned about the people and learned about their history. We ended up creating a report where we contributed very compelling legal analysis. I really enjoyed working on that, and I learned a lot.

Does your firm often collaborate with your clients on pro bono matters?

We do collaborate – we really look forward to opportunities where we can work with our clients. It’s an opportunity for team-building in a way that’s not just on the matter that we’re handling for them. There is also bench strength – we can immediately double the size of the team. Ultimately, collaborating allows us to come together on a project that we are proud of and get to know each other a little better.

What would you recommend legal services organizations do in order to recruit more volunteers?

A lot of it is publicity – getting out there and making it known that you are looking for help. People are looking for opportunities that are meaningful, and they don’t always know how to find them. We have had a lot of success when we bring organizations in to talk to us and do a presentation. For example, an organization will present over lunch, explain what they do and talk about projects they are recruiting for. Lawyers will get really energized on the spot and the organization can pick up a lot of volunteers that way.

Another way, of course, is to advertise on a platform like Paladin. We have found that making opportunities available on Paladin is a great way to advertise. Our attorneys can curate what they want to see based on their interests and immediately see what’s available. There are some opportunities out there that you might not know about otherwise.

If you were talking to a new pro bono counsel at a law firm that doesn’t have an established pro bono program yet, what advice would you give them for getting started?

Find a way to publicize and advertise the new program – send out a regular newsletter, introduce yourself, share what’s going on in the pro bono space and highlight a pro bono matter. Just get people thinking about it. I wouldn’t bombard lawyers because – then they’re going to start to ignore you – but hit the right note in terms of getting the word out.

I would also set up meetings and figure out what organizations you want to work with. Maybe speak to pro bono people in other firms – ask “who do you work with, who do you like, what works?” You should also survey associates and ask “what do you want to see us do?” Based on the survey, bring in a couple of legal services organizations. Be responsive to associates’ needs and interests and get the ball rolling with meetings, newsletters and advertising.
What can Paladin do in terms of supporting the firm around engaging lawyers in pro bono?

I was here when we adopted Paladin. I was part of the discussion that decided to use it. Initially, I thought, “oh no, a new platform, new technology, do I really have to use it?” Then I tried it and I was like, “wow, this is really easy!”
Our attorneys receive a weekly digest from Paladin and are taking on matters. I can see what a powerful, wonderful tool it’s been for us. Whenever we want to see what people are interested in, it is just there. It works seamlessly and gets our lawyers involved. It’s a very powerful platform.