Inspired by his mother’s lifelong volunteerism, corporate counsel Adam Brink approached general counsel Laura Stein shortly after she joined Clorox in 2006 to discuss starting a pro bono program through which Clorox attorneys, paralegals and administrative personnel could volunteer their legal services to low-income residents. With the leadership of Associate General Counsel Sheldon Quan, they drafted a mission statement, established a pro bono committee and identified some initiatives.
Eight years later, roughly 75 percent of the Oakland Clorox legal team participates in pro bono activities each year and has helped countless residents with a range of legal issues.
Please tell us about some of the organizations you work with in Oakland.
Since 2006 we have worked with the Family Violence Law Center, whose clients need in-court assistance to obtain restraining orders in domestic violence disputes. We also work with the East Bay Community Law Center on a program called Project Clean Slate. The program helps people re-enter society after serving time in jail or prison. They unfortunately can still face many obstacles in securing jobs and housing, even though they have paid their debt and proven they are on the right track many years after being in prison.
Which groups have you partnered with more recently?
California Lawyers for the Arts, which helps nonprofits and artists with intellectual property (IP) issues. About a third of the attorneys in our department focus on IP, so this is a good initiative for us. The other recent program is a housing negotiation clinic in San Francisco, which tries to settle tenant-landlord disputes before they go to trial. We ensure that tenants facing eviction — often those with mental or physical impairments and no other housing options — have their rights protected in the process.
How has the program’s structure changed over time, including your role?
We have moved away from having a committee making decisions and put more control into the hands of individual leaders who are passionate about a particular cause. These folks handle everything from calendaring to recruiting to setting up trainings. They also report out in staff meetings to keep pro bono at the top of everyone’s mind.
Although I still volunteer with each organization, I have less direct contact with each organization now that the project leaders are involved. My role has shifted towards supporting the project leaders and helping to address how we can overcome any challenges within a project.
What is the most satisfying aspect of volunteering?
When you hear an individual’s story and the challenges they are trying to overcome, you realize how tough it can be, even for strong people. They just need a little help to keep going in the right direction. Once you take the time to get to know someone who needs help, it is so eye-opening and humbling and motivating. I have definitely matured in my own relationships personally and professionally because of my volunteer experiences.
And from another perspective, volunteering can be good for your relationships with coworkers. You get to see your co-workers in a setting outside of work, which helps you get to know and respect them in a deeper way, and that benefits your working relationship.
How has Clorox’s work with the Family Violence Law Center (FVLC) expanded?
When you first start doing pro bono work, you go in thinking about just one goal: do the legal work that these people need as best you can. But as you get to know that organization and its people, you naturally start discussing other areas, and, suddenly, new ideas pop up.
As our relationship developed with FVLC, we started an “adopt-a-family” gift program for families struggling during the holiday season. We also plugged into the center’s after-school program – where kids can learn how to resolve conflict in a positive manner – by donating school supplies (backpacks, pens, paper, etc.).
Over the past eight years, you’ve developed a structure that runs smoothly even as it has grown. Are you sharing your experiences with other companies?
We’ve had companies call and ask us about our program. We recently helped another legal department at a company in upstate New York get started. We also connected them with the Pro Bono Institute for more support and resources. Our department isn’t growing substantially in personnel, but we can broaden our impact by helping other companies set up their programs.
How can companies create internal momentum to get the best results from their volunteers?
Find the people in your department who are truly passionate about volunteering and about specific causes – those are your leaders. You want people whose mindset is: “Even if nobody else volunteers, I want to work with that organization.” To have a fully voluntary program like we do at Clorox, the people who are most passionate have to become your leaders, and that passion will spread.
Even Laura Stein volunteers when she can. Seeing the general counsel volunteering helps keep up the momentum!
Any other advice for creating a successful volunteer program?
You should define what success means to you and your department. Is it 25 percent participation or 100 percent participation? Do you want one large project or many small projects? Does a volunteer day – where everyone in the department takes time to volunteer – work best for your department? Or should the work be spread out over the entire year?
Do not get overwhelmed by the volume of pro bono opportunities and people in need. This is not about trying to fix everything; it is about lending a helping hand to some people who really need it.