A Perfect Match: Ashoka & Latham’s Pro Bono Partnership

Three decades of working together to support social innovation and change making.

January 16, 2015

A law firm with an ever expanding global footprint and long-held commitment to making a difference through pro bono work meets a non-profit organization that works to change the world by providing support and resources to social entrepreneurs in 70 countries. It sounds like a perfect union, and indeed it has been ever since the mid-1980s when Latham & Watkins first signed on to provide pro bono legal services to Ashoka.

Founded in 1980 by Bill Drayton, Ashoka is credited with launching the field of social entrepreneurship by providing start-up financing, professional support services and vital connections to those with innovative ideas for solving social problems. Today these “Ashoka Fellows” make up the largest network of social entrepreneurs worldwide, with nearly 3,000  across the globe working alone, as teams, and with Ashoka’s core staff to make a better world.

Roots in a Law School Friendship

Bill Kelly, a retired Latham & Watkins partner and a long-time member of Ashoka’s Board of Directors, was one of Drayton’s close friends at Yale Law School. Kelly and Drayton stayed in touch after their time at Yale, and Kelly was impressed by Drayton’s vision for Ashoka. Eager to get involved, Kelly began discussing with Drayton the possibility of Latham’s doing some pro bono work for Ashoka. “At that point Ashoka was still fairly small, but what was beginning to concern the team was that the organization was operating in a whole range of countries and either wasn't fully organized in those countries, or was organized in a way that was inconsistent with being a global organization,” said Kelly. Bringing some order to Ashoka’s governance structure and various global entities became one of the firm’s first pro bono projects for the organization.

Forming A Long-Term Partnership

And so began what has become a successful and mutually rewarding relationship that spans three decades. “Having that go-to, all inclusive, holistic pro bono partner has been invaluable for us,” said Jonathan Ng, Ashoka’s global legal director and in-house counsel. “I feel that I could reach out to Latham & Watkins for just about any issue and the firm has done a great job of either addressing it directly, or immediately putting us in touch with other resources.”

“We strive to be a one-stop, adaptive partner for Ashoka on most, if not all, legal needs they may have across our global Latham footprint,” said Latham Washington, D.C. partner Jennifer Archie, who currently manages the firm’s relationship with Ashoka and has been working with them for over a decade. “I think our success in being a trusted advisor has come from the fact that we adapt our expertise to their mission and their approach. We are here to service Ashoka’s goals. Our lawyers of course listen and advise, as all good lawyers do, but we try to do that in a way that realizes Ashoka’s innovative, forward-leaning approach to executing on its mission.”

Indeed, over the years the scope of the pro bono work Latham has handled for Ashoka has expanded significantly. In 2013 more than 170 Latham lawyers and professional staff across 19 offices in the US, Europe, Asia and the Middle East worked on matters for Ashoka and Ashoka Fellows. “We cover everything from intellectual property, to employment, to trademark, to real estate, to sophisticated transactional work to general corporate advisory matters for Ashoka,” said Latham New York partner Andrea Schwartzman, who similarly has coordinated work for and supported Ashoka for many years.

Synchronized Global Growth

Both Ashoka and Latham were on similar global trajectories, allowing for natural growth in the relationship. “As the firm began to add international offices, it struck me that this was a huge opportunity for both Ashoka and the firm,” said Kelly. “The map between Ashoka's success in expanding globally and building its fellowship program and Latham doing the same in the legal field was a really nice fit.”

As Latham began opening offices outside the US, Ashoka provided steady pro-bono work for new Latham lawyers as well as opportunities for members of different offices to work together. “What better idea than to have them work together on pro bono projects to get to know one another?” said Kelly. “At the same time, the firm was able to display to Ashoka and the world its ability to do multinational pro bono.”

The latter point was particularly important for Latham’s international offices, many of which are located in countries where there is not the strong tradition of pro bono legal work that is found in the US. “Ashoka was our first client ever on the pro bono side in Paris,” said Latham partner François Mary. “The good thing about the Ashoka projects we work with is that they allow us to put together teams from different departments within the firm. In some cases, the Fellows we work with have been able to expand into other countries, so we are then able to connect them with our Latham colleagues in other offices.”

Challenging Legal Issues & Significant Results

The complexity and global nature of Ashoka’s work has also served to make it a particularly interesting pro bono client. “What makes their projects so interesting is that they mirror what we do for our global clients,” said Latham partner Kevin Boyle, who has done extensive work for Ashoka on privacy and technology matters. “There aren’t very many pro bono clients where you can bring that same skill set to bear because not many pro bono clients have the scale of global operations that Ashoka does.”
Schwartzman echoed these sentiments. “Transactional pro bono work is something that is incredibly important for us to pursue,” she said. “When you find a client that is sophisticated and pursuing complicated and interesting projects and has a very comprehensive understanding of the world they are trying operate in, that makes for a terrific client from a transactional perspective.”

The work is, of course, not only interesting, but also vital to the continued growth and success of Ashoka. Among the firm’s most important contributions to Ashoka in recent years, Ng cites a survey the firm helped conduct to better understand local labor laws in the countries in which Ashoka operates. Archie spearheaded the project on the Latham end with help from associate Joshua Marnitz. Archie describes the project as one of the contributions she is most proud of during her long-standing tenure offering pro bono employment counsel to Ashoka. “We put together a volunteer network of lawyers in dozens of foreign countries, including from many non-Latham firms in the developing world,” she said. Participants completed detailed surveys about local labor laws, and the team put the responses together to serve as a reference guide for Ashoka. “It was very comprehensive,” said Ng. “That has been extremely helpful for the Ashoka Global staff here in Virginia, and also for our local country personnel.”

An added bonus was the fact that many of the volunteer firms signed on to be local pro bono advisors to Ashoka. “We were able to leverage Latham’s brand and relationships with these firms in order to get free legal services for our pro bono client, even in countries which do not have an established expectation or rule of pro bono service, as is the case in the United States,” said Archie.

Shared Passion Makes for Strong Relationships

While individual projects Latham and Ashoka collaborate on continue to play an important role in Ashoka’s operations, Ng points to the relationships the Ashoka and Latham teams have built as being the most valuable product of the partnership. “I think that really is the more important aspect of pro bono,” said Ng. “It really is about the relationship and not about a one-off transaction.”

The strength of that relationship is owed, in part, to a shared passion for making a difference and an affinity for social entrepreneurship. “Their motto is ‘everyone is a change maker’, and that really defines me as well — I like to make change and have impact,” said Archie. “I understand where they are coming from philosophically.”

“I continue to be drawn to Ashoka because I like the whole concept of leveraging effort to get maximum results,” added Boyle. “That is what their social entrepreneurship theory is all about — not just giving money, but giving it wisely; not just giving time, but giving it wisely.”

This affinity for Ashoka’s mission makes the work particularly gratifying for the Latham team. “The Ashoka Fellows always have a great idea that solves a societal problem and they want to make sure their projects will have an impact,” said Mary. “It is extremely rewarding to work with such great people who have such great ideas.”

Finding New Opportunities for Collaboration

As robust as Ashoka and Latham’s partnership is, preventing it from stagnating remains important to both organizations, and this means always being on the lookout for new opportunities to collaborate. “We do a very significant amount of work for Ashoka Fellows outside of the US, and we would really like to increase the work we do for Fellows in the US,” said Schwartzman. “There are really exciting projects happening in the US, and from the transactional perspective I think we can be very helpful as the Fellows think about how best to grow these projects into full-fledged organizations.”

It was with this goal in mind, that Latham held its first Social Entrepreneurship Legal Clinic, co-sponsored by Ashoka, in April 2014. The clinic’s goal was to help social entrepreneurs make the greatest possible impact by ensuring that they are protected by, and operating appropriately within, the law. A team of about 30 Latham lawyers, led by associates Cynthia Weiss and Gregory Braswell, offered social entrepreneurs advice on everything from contractual problems, to regulatory questions, to entity formation, to general issue spotting.

“I really enjoyed interacting with this incredibly passionate, creative group of clients,” said Weiss. “It was very satisfying to talk through ideas with them and help refine some of thinking about what their next steps should be in launching or developing their respective organizations.” Feedback from the attendants was also positive. “Clients at the clinic commented that the lawyers they worked with were able to take a wide range of legal concepts and help the clients relate those concepts to their specific businesses,” said Weiss.

The clinic also presented a chance for Latham lawyers to receive training on legal issues specific to social entrepreneurship. “One of the interesting things about forming the clinic was that we were able to think about some of the new issues in social entrepreneurship in the 21st century and then train our people on those topics so that they could best counsel the social entrepreneurs who want to know more about those issues from a legal perspective,” said Weiss. Trainings in preparation for the first clinic included “Organizational Forms for Social Entrepreneurs” and “Legal Issues in Connection with Running a Web-Based Business.” In preparation for the second Social Entrepreneurship Legal Clinic in early 2015, the team plans to add a new training on crowdfunding and enhance the training on web-based businesses to include issues in relation to open source technology.

The Next Steps

All of these trainings have the goal of enabling Latham lawyers to provide the most up-to-date legal advice to social entrepreneurs looking to take the next step. Indeed, Ng sees this step — helping Fellows become fully formed organizations optimized to achieve their social purposes — as an important future focus. “What I am seeing work well is pro bono legal services being offered to help a social enterprise with infrastructure — legal entity formation, initial contracts, intellectual property filings, etc.,” he said.

Indeed, as social entrepreneurship evolves, so too does the relationship between Latham and Ashoka “We are continually looking at ways to take full advantage of our global platform for Ashoka, both in terms of the type of work that we do and also where we do it for them,” said Schwartzman. “We are always focused on developing new projects and expanding our already great relationship.”

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