May 10, 2021

At Sidley Austin, A pro bono project involves hundreds

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By Anita Abedian, From The American Lawyer

In Ghana, a farmer didn’t know at what price to sell his maize, rice and other staple grains so he often didn’t make a profit.

In neighboring Ivory Coast, where women collect shea nuts to make ends meet, many of them didn’t know how to properly store or process the nuts and they didn’t know how to connect with buyers.

In Rwanda, a farmer couldn’t afford the seed and fertilizer needed for soybean harvesting and production.

All that changed when lawyers from Sidley Austin stepped in to offer legal services to nongovernmental organizations that are helping to develop agrarian economies in Africa and Asia. The launch of the firm’s Africa-Asia Agricultural Enterprise Pro Bono Program in 2012 has enabled those NGO efforts to flourish and expand.

There are now 80 separate pro bono client projects involving 285 Sidley lawyers in 18 countries in Africa and seven countries in Asia. They’re joined in an effort to create a more sustainable model for farmworkers and to reduce poverty in rural regions. And it’s working.

“Three years ago, I couldn’t afford to feed my family,” says Kwaku Manu, a 49-year-old farmer in northern Ghana. With the help of one of Sidley’s client projects, Esoko, a mobile app provider supplying information for farmers and agribusinesses in Sub-Saharan Africa, Manu not only increased his crop yield, but obtained the best prices by knowing the current market price through Esoko’s real-time technology. “Now, my crops and business have grown,” says Manu. “I can pay my children’s school fees, and finally, I was able to build my own house.”

With support from Sidley’s legal team, which tackled intellectual property issues surrounding the technology and drew up shareholder agreements aimed at expanding operations, Esoko was able to help farmers like Manu.

“If we didn’t have Sidley lawyers as part of this program, I don’t think we could’ve gotten this far with the company, and helped as many farmers and their families,” says Mark Davies, Esoko’s CEO. The company now provides thousands of farmers with access to mobile phone technology that alerts them to market prices, weather forecasts and growing tips, and it helps businesses connect with farmers.

“It’s amazing to know we’ve helped make a difference in the lives of individual farmers,” says Scott Andersen, co-founder and manager of the firm’s program, which recently won The American Lawyer’s Transatlantic Legal Award for pro bono service. Andersen co-founded Sidley’s Geneva office, where he is a partner focusing on international trade.

Getting started

The idea for the Sidley program emerged when Andersen and Jung-ui Sul, an associate in Sidley’s Brussels office, became involved in an international trade project with TransFarm Africa, a nonprofit aimed at improving Africa’s agricultural productivity, supported by funding from the Hewlett Foundation. After successfully working out legal and regulatory issues to import seed potatoes from Kenya to Tanzania, Andersen and Sul sought to broaden their services.

“We thought that if we could make such a big difference in one case, imagine if we could provide help to other existing companies and NGO’s, so they can grow and expand,” says Andersen.

Under the program, Sidley lawyers enlist clients that meet certain criteria: they must be based in Sub-Saharan Africa or less-developed countries in Asia, unable to afford or otherwise access international legal services, possess a goal of benefitting rural women, fishers or poor farmers, and agree to secure local counsel, who act as liaisons between Sidley and clients to help navigate legal systems in jurisdictions where the firm doesn’t have offices. Andersen says many clients are referrals from other aid organizations.

Picking and choosing the right projects isn’t easy. Working directly with small enterprises rather than bigger charities is difficult due to the lack of offices in developing countries. Moreover, some clients don’t have local counsel because lawyers are scarce.

Each client project has its own specific needs, so different teams of lawyers work on various projects. Which explains the need for so many lawyers.

Andersen and Sul say promoting attorney participation was never a problem. “That was the easy part,” says Sul. “Once the word about the program got out, we had loads of volunteers.” Volunteers have devoted over 11,000 hours since 2012, with some attorneys longing to contribute more time.

“I’ve been reprimanded for doing too much pro bono!” says Colette van der Ven, an associate in the firm’s Geneva office.

Van der Ven has collaborated on more than a few projects, most recently West Africa’s Global Shea Alliance. She and other Sidley lawyers have advised the association on licensing, drafting contracts, and regulatory matters directed toward allowing shea to be an alternative fat in chocolate. It’s all part of the nonprofit’s aim to develop a sustainable shea industry and improve the livelihoods of rural African women.

“With multiple lawyers staffed on one project, there’s a little bit of everything we each take on,” van der Ven says.

Torrey Cope, also on the Global Shea Alliance legal team in Sidley’s Washington, D.C., office says that for regulatory lawyers like him, having an opportunity to do pro bono work on a global scale was what initially drew him into the project. Two years back, he traveled to Nigeria for a Global Shea Alliance conference, meeting women involved in the collection and processing of shea nuts.

“Through a translator, I was able to answer lots of questions people had about sustainability and our project,” says Cope. “Being able to use my skills and expertise to affect the lives of people in another part of the world is incredibly rewarding.”

But it can be a challenge to navigate local laws and work through cultural barriers, lawyers say.

“The difficult part is dealing with how things work in other parts of the world, often at a different pace,” says Joshua Hofheimer, partner in Sidley’s Los Angeles office. Though his background in agribusiness and as a technology transactions and IP lawyer has dovetailed well with work required of the program, there’s still a push to improve lines of communication, and “it takes time,” he says.

The bigger picture

Overall, Big Law firms’ commitment to pro bono work has dipped slightly. The percentage of pro bono hours reported by 133 firms in 2014 showed a slight decrease from 2013’s totals, according to a recent study by the Pro Bono Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization. Additionally, Am Law 200 firms surveyed by The American Lawyer reported a total of 4.75 million pro bono hours in 2014, a 5.88 percent decline from 2013. (Sidley was among those firms whose pro bono hours slipped.) Esther Lardent, president of the Pro Bono Institute, says that’s why programs like Sidley’s are so important; they create excitement about pro bono work.

“Though there are other firms that have done some global work akin to Sidley, I think this level of attorney participation and interest – the ripple effect – is rare,” says Lardent.

“I think that’s because this program allows lawyers to use skills from their day-to-day practice and apply them in pro bono work, in a supervised but far more independent fashion. Sidley has found that sweet spot, and that’s why it’s appealing.”

The experience junior associates receive is one of the program’s draws, as they get mentoring from more experienced attorneys on the legal team, and take leading roles on projects. Young lawyers take ownership of clients, become strategic partners, and learn to be creative in figuring out what services they might need.

“As a junior lawyer, it’s a tremendous amount of exposure, more than I would usually get,” says Jason Griffith, an associate in the firm’s Chicago office, who assisted with

contracts, entity structuring and general corporate set up for Atikus Investments, a startup in Rwanda focused on expanding capital for underserved individuals. The work also required dealing with developing legal systems in a constant state of flux, he says.

The impact of the work can be seen through the experience of people such as Safia Alhassan, a 56-year-old shea nut collector in Ghana. When Global Shea Alliance brought resources and opportunities to her village, they brought hope, she says.

“Before, I had no money for my four children, for food, for anything,” says Alhassan, “With the knowledge and access given to us from Global Shea Alliance, providing training and education on the shea butter industry, I was able to get income to support my family.”

Andersen says he hopes the program can expand to include more projects and more lawyers, and can serve as a model for other law firms to adopt.

“Now, I can see the potential to grow our industry, to establish a training school and educate our local people,” says Alhassan. “I can see my biggest dreams coming true.”

IMAGE: EAST AFRICA – One Acre Fund works with 130,000 farm families and aims to work with over 1 million families in the future.

For more on this story go to: http://www.americanlawyer.com/id=1202735173769/At-Sidley-Austin-A-Pro-Bono-Project-Involves-Hundreds#ixzz3kahFZX98

 

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