Helping Others, Staying Firm
Ten years ago, Allegra Nethery ’95 faced a professional crossroads.
A labor and employment law partner at Seyfarth Shaw’s Chicago office, she had begun to find her work unfulfilling and decided to leave the firm to explore other career options. She wanted to do something that felt more socially focused and began taking classes in nonprofit management, thinking that she might try to join a charitable foundation. A few months into her break, she had lunch with J. Stephen Poor ’80, her former firm’s managing partner. Poor noted that Seyfarth had recently formed its own charitable foundation. Shortly after that meeting, he asked if Nethery would consider running it.
Nethery soon returned to the firm as its first full-time pro bono and philanthropy partner. She heads Seyfarth’s pro bono, charitable contributions, community service and sustainability initiatives. At the time, Seyfarth was the only firm, to her knowledge, to wrap all of its public service work under one full-time director.
Although many lawyers may want to do pro bono work, the pressure to bill their time can make that difficult. Seyfarth addressed this by giving full billable credit for all pro bono work.
Nethery describes her job as a mixture of encouragement and assistance. “I like to say that our program is bottom-up, not top-down,” she said. “It’s really about engaging our attorneys in what they’re passionate about.”
“In many cases, attorneys will come to her with cases they would like to take on or organizations they would like to assist. In other cases, she meets with attorneys who know that they want to give back but don’t know what’s out there. She also recruits and manages relationships with outside organizations in the community that might need legal help, trying to match them with Seyfarth lawyers who would be a good fit.
The firm’s pro bono work encompasses a wide range of cases and causes: immigration and asylum law, domestic violence representation, landlord-tenant disputes, prisoner rights cases and assisting nonprofits. Charitable contributions, through the Seyfarth Shaw Charitable Foundation, are made by each of the firm’s offices under her direction. As if that weren’t enough to do, Nethery also recently served as president of the Chicago Bar Foundation, the charitable arm of the Chicago Bar Association. “It’s all about how we give back to our community,” she said, “whether in money, influence or voluntary legal work.”
Nethery said the legal industry’s commitment to pro bono work has grown since she finished law school. The Association of Pro Bono Counsel, of which she is president-elect, has more than 200 members from more than 100 firms. Last year, 71 percent of Seyfarth’s attorneys did some form of pro bono work, totaling 19,367 hours.
“I think there has been a real culture shift,” she said.