Interviews October 22, 2013

Five Questions with Pro Bono Committee Chair Mary Benton

In the wake of the Pro Bono Institute’s announcement that Alston & Bird is the recipient of the 2013 John H. Pickering Award, Alston & Bird Pro Bono Director of Pro Bono and Community Service Cheryl Naja sat down with Pro Bono Chair Mary Benton to discuss the firm’s commitment to pro bono and community service.

The Pickering Award is one of the most prestigious in the world of pro bono. Why us? Why now?

First of all, the Pickering Award is a great, great honor and we are so happy that the firm has been recognized in this way. I truly believe that the award is the culmination of many years of hard work by many different people to formalize the pro bono program here at Alston & Bird, so that we can meet the increasing needs in our communities in strategic and innovative ways.

Good works have always been a core value of the firm since its inception. What we’ve done most recently is establish a framework to facilitate those efforts. I often say that pro bono is the intersection of your passion and your talent. What we’ve tried to do here at Alston & Bird is facilitate creative ways to support and encourage people to make that connection . . . and then they are off and running.

What historically sets Alston & Bird apart when it comes to pro bono?

We have a long history of giving back to our communities. Philip H. Alston, Jr., was one of the co-founders of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society in 1924, and we’ve been working hard to continue in this tradition. Institutionally, we have had a formal Pro Bono Committee since the early 1990s, far ahead of other firms on that front, and have devoted a great amount of time and resources to pro bono for decades. Alston & Bird remains a national leader in pro bono efforts, and that is because we built the foundation of a good program a long time ago.

Now with this solid foundation, we can be innovative and creative and strategic in how we engage our people and meet the ever-increasing needs for pro bono legal services in our communities.

What are some of the major areas of impact or projects our attorneys are currently working on?

The type of matters we take on is as varied as the personalities of our attorneys, and our pro bono footprint extends far beyond where we do business. Our attorneys, paralegals and administrative staff members are encouraged to follow their passion, and we have people across the country working on important matters, including assisting low-income individuals, advocating for children and senior citizens, assisting veterans, strengthening nonprofits, advancing human rights, serving as counsel for immigrants and the wrongly accused—and so very much more.

Mary, you have been the firm’s Pro Bono Chair for four years. Where does your passion for pro bono come from? What drives you every day?

My passion comes from my desire to give back and make at least a small difference. A primary reason I joined Alston & Bird many years ago was the rich culture of community involvement because I knew that I wanted to make pro bono a part of my career. The firm was very supportive of my individual efforts, and I had the opportunity to join the Pro Bono Committee as a junior associate.

Now as chair, I feel I have the opportunity and responsibility to pay that support forward. The firm allowed me to follow my passion where it led me, and I want to provide that same encouragement to others. I see the chasm that exists in access to justice for low income individuals, and I know the incredible talents and passion of our attorneys. Being able to connect our people with meaningful pro bono projects that impact our communities and can literally save lives is my motivation every day. What excites our attorneys is what excites me, and helping them help others brings me great personal fulfillment.

At their best, awards don’t necessarily signify the culmination of things, but the beginning of something greater. What is on the horizon for Alston & Bird in terms of pro bono and community service?

We on the Pro Bono Committee like to think of ourselves as being in a constant state of vigilance and advocacy. We are always evaluating what is happening right now in the communities in which we work, and we have boots on the ground listening to what people really need so that we can craft opportunities to help fulfill those needs.

We have 80 people on the committee, across every office in the firm, and many, many more that make pro bono and community service work a cornerstone of their lives. We will continue to listen to what they are hearing and learning, and we will go where the need is. We want to be a leader in how we are engaging and addressing the needs so that we can continue to use pro bono and community service to strengthen our communities. It’s an ongoing, viciously satisfying cycle.
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