Global pro bono, local New York hero

Story of service • New York • May 2013

Theresa Mohan gained experience
while working on IBM’s global pro
bono program which helped her and
other IBM volunteers deliver
guidance to the community hit by
super storm Sandy in New York.
In 2009, Theresa Mohan, senior regional counsel for IBM in the United States, and several IBM colleagues were beginning to update IBM’s approach to pro bono service within its legal community. At IBM, pro bono service—work undertaken voluntarily and without payment—fits well as a professional and personal objective for the company’s legal team. However, the infrastructure to enable pro bono service at corporations is not as developed as it is at law firms, which are closer to the courts and litigation.

“Bob Weber, IBM’s general counsel, really wanted to make sure that our pro bono program was as robust as it could be and that we were doing everything we could to support volunteer efforts and encourage them,” says Theresa. With Michelle Browdy, IBM assistant general counsel, as an executive sponsor, Theresa lead a team focused on creating a pro bono program that culminated in a partnership with ShelterBox, an international disaster relief organization that delivers emergency shelter to people affected by disasters around the world.

With ShelterBox, a U.K.-based organization with 21 affiliates around the world, IBM attorneys now have a place to turn to when they ask themselves the question in the wake of a disaster, “How can I help?”

“You often feel like there’s nothing you can do when a disaster happens halfway around the world, except maybe donate money,” Theresa says. “Now we have a global volunteer outlet for our skills.” IBM attorneys are working with ShelterBox on issues such as tax considerations and global privacy.

IBM’s work with ShelterBox has inspired an increasing number of IBM lawyers to participate, and now three attorneys are becoming certified ShelterBox first responders in the event of a disaster. In 2012, Theresa joined the board of directors of ShelterBox USA.

Theresa practically found herself on the receiving end of pro bono legal work when super storm Sandy hit the eastern United States in December, 2012. She grew up in one of the areas hit worst by super storm Sandy and her mother still has a house there. “There was a lot of destruction—there was a piano in the middle of the street, sand and water was everywhere,” says Theresa. “It really was confusing, and I had no idea what assistance my mom was entitled to. I kept talking to neighbors to see if they knew, and people not only were in shock, but they just didn’t know where to begin.”

Theresa quickly discovered that she needed her legal training and professional experience to try to figure out what assistance was available.

Ideas and doers

Standing in the rubble left behind by super storm Sandy, gazing at a complicated application for assistance and hearing similar confusion from other residents, Theresa says she remembers thinking, “I should just put up a sign and set up shop.” A week later, after getting some disaster-specific legal training and talking to other assistance teams, that’s what she did.

“I talked to Lynn Kelley, the head of the City Bar Justice Center who was running disaster-specific training for lawyers, and told her I could get space in a tent and wanted to get some volunteer lawyers to help,” says Theresa. “Lynn announced it at the training and that was how the clinic started.”

Theresa’s make-shift legal tent grew to five locations with volunteers from IBM, law firms, local bar association, law schools and the surrounding area all offering guidance to the community. Theresa coordinated the clinics for four weekends until the City Bar Justice Center and local attorney’s stepped in to manage them. However, volunteer IBM attorneys and retirees continued to offer advice. Lynn Kelley says, “Theresa spent hours and hours out in the field helping to coordinate volunteer efforts in order to make sure there were volunteer attorneys available to help people. You need people with ideas and doers. Luckily, Theresa is both.”

Weeks later, while participating on a disaster relief panel discussion, Theresa listened to pro bono coordinators at law firms voice their concern for better access to information when their services are needed. As a result, IBM is now teaming with Pro Bono Net to develop a SmartCloud solution that provides a virtual forum where stake holders in legal relief efforts can communicate. Pro Bono Net is a not-for-profit organization in the United States that supports the use of innovative and effective technology to increase access to legal support for those without means.

IBM’s pro bono program, now supported by two global coordinators, has regional coordinators in every geography and program information on the IBM legal community’s intranet site. The National Law Journal named IBM to its “Pro Bono Hot List”—the first time a corporate legal department has been included. In another “first” Theresa will be awarded the Louis J. Lefkowitz Public Service Award from Fordham Law School, the first time a corporate attorney has received the honor.

Theresa Mohan is a winner of the 2012 IBM Volunteer Excellence Award which recognizes IBM employees or teams who best exemplify the IBM values of dedication, innovation and trust through their volunteer efforts.

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