The Williams Companies*, a nationwide energy company based in Tulsa, Okla., has a strong pro bono program. The program’s success is due in large part to the support and encouragement of its past and present general counsels.
Adopting one of the most efficient pro bono service models, the Williams legal department has committed to handling all of Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma, Inc.’s (Oklahoma Legal Aid) cases concerning estate planning and other end-of-life issues for the elderly poor in its community.
For several years, the University of Tulsa Law School operated a clinic providing free legal services to persons suffering from poverty and 60 years old or older living in Tulsa, Creek, and Osage counties in northeast Oklahoma. The clinic, called the Older Americans Law Project, has served hundreds of clients over nine years. When the University discontinued the clinic, Williams’ legal department stepped in to sustain the clinic and recruited one of its outside firms and Tulsa’s largest law firm, Hall, Estill, Hardwick, Gable, Golden & Nelson, P.C., to help. Initially, 40 lawyers and paralegals volunteered. It was the single largest influx of volunteers in Oklahoma Legal Aid’s history.
Williams’ pro bono committee began by recruiting a local expert attorney and two district court judges to teach the volunteers about a variety of elder law issues. Williams videotaped the training sessions and housed them on Oklahoma Legal Aid’s website to be accessed by subsequent volunteers. James Bender, senior vice president and general counsel at the time, took the first case, while current Senior Vice President and General Counsel Craig Rainey took the second.
Typical cases for elderly poor clients involve preparation of wills or trusts, real or personal property transactions, advanced medical directives, powers of attorney, or guardianships. Volunteers occasionally encounter other needs such as consumer problems or issues concerning government benefits.
During 2009 and 2010, the legal department not only sustained the program, but added more volunteers and significantly expanded the scope of the program. More than two-thirds of the company’s Tulsa-based attorneys participate in the program along with a majority of paralegals and several administrative assistants.
Guardian Ad Litem Cases
In addition to work on behalf of the elderly poor, the Williams legal department has undertaken guardian ad litem cases representing Oklahoma Legal Aid clients in garnishment proceedings. The work includes cases such as children seeking guardianship of elderly parents, grandparents seeking guardianship of grandchildren, or guardianship concerning the financial support of a minor. Several of the department’s paralegals and other non-lawyers have taken on guardian ad litem work, since the court may appoint non-lawyers to that role.
Courthouse Assistance Program
Together with Hall Estill and Oklahoma Legal Aid, the Williams legal department has worked with the Tulsa County judiciary to establish a Courthouse Assistance Program. The objective of the program is for a volunteer attorney to be available at the Forcible Entry and Detainer (FED) Docket to meet with unrepresented parties in the courtroom after the docket is called and, if necessary, to provide representation at the hearings or conferences which take place that same day. One common case that arises on the FED Docket involves landlords who are trying to evict and/or recover rent from tenants.
New Collaboration between Old Colleagues
On January 1 of this year, Williams spun off its exploration and production business into a new entity – WPX Energy, Inc. As a result, a number of the lawyers who had worked on the Legal Aid projects at Williams are now in-house at WPX Energy, including Bender. The two general counsels, Rainey and Bender, and their staffs have implemented processes to enable both legal departments to collaborate on future cases. The two companies hope to use the new model as a means to recruit other legal departments into the effort.
*denotes a Signatory to the Corporate Pro Bono ChallengeSM