It didn’t take Cristin Zeisler long to figure out that a traditional law firm career path was not the right fit for her.
“Within the first few months of my first law firm job, I had started filling out the Peace Corps application,” said Cristin, now Partner & Director of Pro Bono Services at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips.
While her Peace Corps dream was deferred for a few years, she did end up joining and spent two years in Ukraine teaching business classes to university students. When she returned to the U.S., Manatt wanted her back, but she was hesitant. “I resisted them at every turn because I wanted to keep doing good in the world,” she explains.
Looking at the law firms that were getting recognized for pro bono work, she realized that most had a full-time pro bono manager. “I had no idea that positions like this existed until I started looking into it,” she said. “At that point it became a more realistic concept to figure out how to do good here. Manatt has always been a firm that has a reputation as being really committed to the community and very civically involved.” She wrote up a proposal suggesting that Manatt create her position and hire her to fill it. The firm quickly agreed.
For Cristin, a large part of the job is in getting to know all the firm’s attorneys so she can quickly size up which opportunities are right for them. She tries to meet in person with every new hire within their first four months at the firm. That way, she explains, “I know what their legal skills are, what their social passions are, what their skill gaps are.”
The job goes far beyond matchmaking, however. Manatt is smaller than most of the firms that are known for pro bono. Therefore, “for us to get noticed and make a difference we have to be a little more creative, tactical and strategic about the projects we accept, pursue and create,” Cristin says.
This involves taking a step back from dealing with cases on a one-off basis. “Strategic pro bono says, let’s figure out how we can keep bad things from happening or take care of lots of similar bad things,” she said. One example of this approach is the Holocaust Survivors Justice Network, developed in partnership with Bet Tzedek Legal Services. The project seeks to help survivors nationwide obtain funds offered under a German reparations program.
In a project like this, which seeks to help large numbers of people, “there’s a lot of initial ramp up work,” Cristin said. “Once you figure that out, there’s no reason you can’t use that same investment of planning time to serve thousands of clients.”
Among other activities, Manatt and Bet Tzedek partnered with Pro Bono Net to create HolocaustSurvivorsProBono.org, a central site supporting attorneys involved in the project with information, training and practice materials. Cristin is now exploring a similar centralized approach to a project that seeks to help immigrants in rural communities obtain U Visas, which give victims of certain crimes temporary legal status. Manatt is collaborating with Legal Momentum and local victims’ advocates groups.
Successful partnerships with legal services organizations are key to projects such as these, and Cristin has over time identified factors that determine a good partner for her and the firm. “Our most successful relationships have legal service folks serving as either a pro bono coordinator or truly dedicated point person for a given project – a single point of entry,” she says. Being able to rely on a legal service partner to do a good job of screening potential clients is also crucial. “Running into conflicts late in the game because somebody didn’t pay attention” is one of the worst-case scenarios, she said.
Despite her initial reluctance to rejoin the corporate law firm world after the Peace Corps, Cristin says, “I am so thrilled to be a law firm partner in this position.” She is pleased to be among the growing ranks of full-time pro bono professionals. “The more folks who have roles like mine and are viewed as partner material - it really is good for the pro bono community in general,” she said.
Want to learn more about Cristin and Manatt’s pro bono program? Follow her on Twitter!