LEGAL DEPARTMENTS OF THE YEAR

Wyndham Worldwide: Paying It Back in KIND

New Jersey Law Journal

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Wyndham Worldwide's legal team reported a total of seven hours of pro bono work for 2010. In 2012, the number was closer to 1,200 hours.

What happened, and how?

In 2007, the year after Wyndham spun off from Cendant, litigator Marc Merriweather and two colleagues suggested that the new company create a pro bono program. Cendant hadn't had one, and the lawyers felt it would be in keeping with the new company's core values.

General counsel Scott McLester immediately agreed. "It was an easy response," he says. "I'm so glad that Marc took the lead." In fact, Merriweather has remained the moving force behind Wyndham's pro bono work. "The entire program is Marc. He literally hit the cover off the ball," McLester says.

Merriweather offers "tremendous kudos" to McLester. "Doing pro bono," he says, "always requires a commitment from the general counsel."

Merriweather, group vice president for litigation, had done a lot of pro bono work before joining Cendant and wanted to do more. He and his colleagues formed the Pro Bono Committee and conducted a survey to learn which projects might interest the legal team. They agreed that Legal Services of Northwest Jersey, a nonprofit firm with a lot of experience organizing and training volunteers, would be a good place to start.

Wyndham has 78 lawyers, 39 at its Parsippany, N.J., headquarters In 2011, most were not involved in pro bono work, and the program needed a boost.

The committee focused on several nonprofit groups and offered in-house training that would make it easier to do pro bono work. They found some programs that were a good fit. And some programs found them.

Brad Smith, the head of Microsoft's Department of Legal and Corporate Affairs, "just called me one day," McLester says, adding that he doesn't know how Smith got his name but says he's glad he did.

Smith invited Wyndham's law department to work with KIND (Kids in Need of Defense), a program he'd founded with actress and humanitarian Angelina Jolie.

KIND represents children who are alone in the U.S. when they appear before immigration courts. Three teams agreed to take clients from El Salvador, Peru and Ecuador. In one case, the team has obtained special immigrant juvenile status for the client, allowing him to remain in the U.S. in the custody of his sister and her husband. In 2012, six lawyers (including Merriweather), seven paralegals and two administrative assistants spent almost 1,000 hours on KIND — 600 by attorneys.

KIND acknowledged their "deep commitment and service" with its Innovation Award, presented this April in a ceremony at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York. The award, says McLester, in part recognized Merriweather's success in "spreading the word around" to Wyndham's legal team, and was partly based on the simple fact that Wyndham volunteers are in-house counsel rather than the private-firm attorneys who make up most of KIND's volunteers.

Wyndham's three young clients — aged 13, 17 and 18 — and some of their family members attended the ceremony. Merriweather says they were thrilled to be there, and so were their lawyers, who provided what McLester calls "pretty powerful" videotaped testimony about how good it feels to do this kind of work.

"What if it was my child?" asked paralegal Stephanie Henderson. "I would want them to be safe."

"For my client," senior counsel Julie Weiswasser said, "being able to stay in the U.S. means being able to stay with family who love and care about her, and can provide a good, stable home."

Senior counsel Jennifer Constantinou's client "even said that he'd love to pursue a career in the legal profession. … Working so closely with us … has really impressed upon him that he could do this with his life."

Merriweather says colleagues have told him how happy they are "to work at a place like Wyndham that allows them to work on this kind of thing. They say 'the clients are just so grateful.' Some came to Wyndham from law departments that had no pro bono at all."

In addition to the many hours devoted to KIND in 2012, Wyndham lawyers continued to volunteer with Legal Services of Northwest Jersey. Five attorneys spent a total of 50 hours on seven civil matters for LSNJ, helping seven seniors draft wills, powers of attorney and health-care directives.

Wyndham volunteers also worked with the Pro Bono Partnership, which offers free business services and other legal resources to nonprofits. They helped the Keyport Ministerium Food Pantry provide emergency food, holiday food baskets and toys to needy families; two associates advised the Pantry in its bid for HUD-financed construction. Other partnership clients included Friends of Alouette International, which supports schooling for poor children; Prevent Child Abuse New Jersey; and the World Wide Prostate Cancer Coalition.

Three attorneys donated a total of 78 hours on five matters for the partnership. In addition, a lawyer in Wyndham's Orlando, Fla., office spent 60 hours working as guardian ad litem for an 18-month-old born addicted to heroin.

McLester doesn't track billable hours, doesn't require his busy lawyers to take pro bono cases and doesn't dictate when they should volunteer. "It's more that we encourage people to do it," he explains. "We're very flexible at this company. It's just about getting their job done."

Still, he says, volunteering is "a personal sacrifice," because, "Wyndham time is all the time" — meaning his lawyers already work hard. "To me, this makes it more impressive," he says. "It's a little extra pain."

Wyndham also donated time to community groups in 2012, most of the work law-related. The company hosted high school freshmen at its Parsippany campus in alliance with the New Jersey Law and Education Empowerment Project.

NJ LEEP brings highly motivated students from poor backgrounds into law firms to give them a taste of the legal profession. The young people had never visited a corporate headquarters, and Merriweather says they "were just wowed by the office." Eight to 10 lawyers talked about the various kinds of law they practice. Then participants worked on a litigation-related hypothetical involving rappers Jay-Z and Kanye West.

"These kids are very bright," said Merriweather, who sits on the group's advisory board. "They come up with arguments we hadn't thought of." McLester agreed, quipping that, "They were giving us pro bono services."

Similarly, Wyndham lawyers in Orlando volunteered with Street Law, an outreach program for at-risk youth. The attorneys spent a day with local high school students, encouraging them to pursue careers in law.

Also in 2012, two attorneys helped high school students competing in the New Jersey State Bar Foundation's Mock Trial Competition, and several lawyers worked with Habitat for Humanity.

"We're a hospitality company, so it's important for us to feel like we're giving back," Merriweather explains. Wyndham has more than 7,300 hotels worldwide, with brands including Wyndham, Super 8, Days Inn and Ramada, as well as resorts and time shares. •

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