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Giving back: How our pro bono program drives positive change

Jennifer Zachary, Merck’s General Counsel, on how we can provide more legal services to those in need

December 16, 2021

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One of the first pro bono cases Jennifer Zachary worked on involved a domestic abuse victim who “had very little to give” but still wanted Zachary to have a bracelet of hers that she had complimented her on.

“She insisted when we won her case that I have the bracelet,” said Zachary, executive vice president and general counsel. “It’s my reminder. I look at it from time to time and I think, this is why we do the work we do. It’s really important to me that in my practice I’m bringing justice to people.”

Born in Oregon, this self-described lifelong learner studied chemistry and biology in college before earning a Juris Doctor degree from Harvard Law School. Prior to joining Merck in 2018, Zachary held positions as an associate chief counsel at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and later as a partner at an international law firm, working in pharmaceutical and medical device regulatory law.

Bringing justice to more people

Being a lawyer can be a rewarding profession, but it’s one that unfortunately isn’t accessible to all.

“It’s sort of a public good,” said Zachary. “Access to the court is access to justice.”

And for many people, access to a lawyer is hard to get. A recent study found 1 in 6 people said it would be difficult or nearly impossible to find the money required to resolve a legal problem.

“One of the things that you learn very early in law school is that you have a duty, an obligation to give back.”

Lawyers and law students have the unique opportunity to give back through pro bono work, which is the practice of providing legal service for those who cannot afford an attorney on their own.

WATCH: Jennifer Zachary explains why pro bono work is so important

jennifer zachary

Merck’s pro bono program

Twenty-seven years ago, our company started a pro bono program to provide voluntary legal services to those in need. Over the years, hundreds of our attorneys, paralegals and administrative associates around the world have contributed thousands of hours to help people unable to afford legal representation.

We work with several partners to represent people in cases related to guardianship, landlord/tenant issues, family law, domestic violence, immigration, veteran affairs, social security, disability and education.

“People sometimes can’t access the things we think of as basic necessities for living without a lawyer,” said Zachary.

Zachary further reflected on Merck’s mission and how she views it as a way of pursuing a higher form of justice — of ensuring that every life is treated with dignity and respect.

In October, Zachary accepted The Partner in Justice Award on Merck’s behalf from Volunteer Lawyers for Justice (VLJ), a not-for-profit organization providing legal services to economically disadvantaged adults, children and families in New Jersey. Our company has been VLJ’s longest-standing corporate partner and has helped them expand their programs to reach more people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to critical legal representation.

“By bringing the full scope of capabilities that we have at Merck and our paralegals, administrative support staff and resources, we can have a profound impact on people's lives.”