In 2014, Amazon’s legal team launched the Pro Bono Program to make it easy for Amazon attorneys and legal professionals all over the world to provide pro bono services for underserved communities and to obtain access to justice for people who can’t afford it.
Since its founding by General Counsel David Zapolsky, Amazon legal teams have donated more than 38,000 hours of legal services to clients in a variety of ways. The program creates projects from scratch, like the legal clinic supporting Mary’s Place, a Seattle-based emergency family shelter. The legal team also engages with existing pro bono programs, like the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, which works to prevent and correct the conviction of innocent people in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., and Kids in Need of Defense, which is devoted to the protection of unaccompanied and separated migrant children.
The program continues to expand to new issues and geographies. Over 700 Amazon attorneys and legal professionals have participated so far, and more are joining the program to take advantage of new opportunities to provide pro bono legal services to underserved communities. Amazon recently published a new report detailing the work of Amazon’s legal pro bono program.
We spoke with Zapolsky to learn more about this important work. Here are highlights from the conversation:
Why is pro bono work important to you, and why does the team dedicate so many resources to this cause?
We believe that providing legal services to those unable to pay is not just an ethical obligation for lawyers and legal professionals. It gives Amazon employees an opportunity to serve and learn about their communities in new and meaningful ways.
Companies have a responsibility to the communities they serve, and as one of the largest employers globally, it’s important for Amazon to lead the way. We can leverage the passion of our growing legal team to expand pro bono existing programs and build new ones from scratch, often with the partnership of the law firms we work with around the world. I think the best is yet to come in terms of the impact we can make through our pro bono work.
Is there a pro bono project you have worked on that has particular significance to you?
I have had the privilege to be able to take on a variety of pro bono matters in my career at Amazon, but one that I am passionate about is the King County Bar Association’s Records Project, which seeks to vacate prior convictions for Washington state residents who have completed their sentencing requirements.
A vacated conviction is removed from publicly accessible background search services and gives these clients the ability to tell potential employers or landlords that they were not convicted of the vacated charge. This donation of our time makes such a difference in the lives of these clients, often unlocking economic opportunity by enabling them to get a job or a new home. Bringing our skills as legal professionals and our ability to innovate as Amazon employees to this work represents a unique contribution to our communities, and I’m excited and gratified that so many of my colleagues have stepped up to participate.
There are 18 stories of impact highlighted in the report. Which of them stands out to you the most?
Each case featured in the report provides an overview of the impacts our in-house legal team achieves through its pro bono work, such as rectifying wrongful convictions, addressing homelessness, championing rights of immigrants and refugees, protecting children from sexual abuse, and safeguarding voter participation.
The immigration system in the U.S. is really struggling. One of the ways it’s most obviously struggling is in its ability to provide adequate legal representation to the people who are caught in that system, particularly children. More than 180 attorneys and legal professionals from Amazon, Audible, and our report partner, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, represented on a pro-bono basis 28 of these unaccompanied children, helping them to remain in the U.S. through a Special Juvenile Immigration visa or, in some cases, asylum. Under the leadership of Amazon attorney Ajay Patel, this alliance became the biggest corporate and private law firm partnership for the Kids In Need of Defense Fund (KIND) in terms of geographic scope and number of children served, something I’m incredibly proud and honored to play a part in.
What are you most proud of when it comes to these pro bono efforts?
One of the things I'm most consistently impressed with is the way we've scaled our pro bono work to make a difference, not just in our headquarter communities but across the globe in so many different and creative ways.
We’ve established a truly global program through which members of our legal department around the world can meaningfully contribute from wherever they may be located to an increasingly wide range of pro bono causes, such as working on behalf of wrongfully accused people with the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project or assisting unaccompanied minors who are refugees of the war in Ukraine with KIND.
A specific project that stands out to me is the relationship we’ve formed with Mary’s Place, a Seattle nonprofit that offers emergency shelter and outreach services to families experiencing homelessness. Many people know that Amazon donates space in its downtown Seattle campus to house a Mary’s Place-run family shelter in Seattle. But what few people know is that we also provide free legal counsel to their guests, both in-person and virtually.
Amazon attorneys like Yousri Omar, who has been involved with Mary’s Place since the relationship began, help guests progress toward the goal of securing permanent housing for their families by confronting barriers such as past housing debt, a previous eviction, and other obstacles on credit and rental histories that can give pause to prospective landlords. During 2020 alone, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the legal team provided over 700 hours of pro bono legal services to guests of Mary’s Place.
Learn more about pro bono work at Amazon.