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Pro Bono Part 1: Pro Bono Is Hard Work

The American Lawyer's annual report on pro bono at the nation's 200 largest firms is in. The chart of rankings puts Covington & Burling at the top, with an average number of pro bono hours per attorney of 137.5. That is a lot of hours and even more noteworthy given that Covington ranked 63rd last year. Reporter Michael Aneiro crunches the numbers in his article Am Law 200 Firms Still Have a Way to Go on Pro Bono, and Carlyn Kolker examines the question of what should or shouldn't count as pro bono.

Reading Aneiro's piece, I was struck from his examples by the fact that a firmwide commitment to pro bono is more than aspirational -- it is hard work. Firms devote much talk to developing strategic plans for building their fee-paying business. It seems that the firms that stand out in the pro bono arena have devoted the same kind of strategic thinking to serving the poor. Aneiro writes about the Minneapolis firm Lindquist & Vennum, a first-time entrant in the pro bono rankings that checks in at No. 12. The firm had an average pro bono commitment of 53.7 hours per attorney, with 94.5 percent of its lawyers logging at least 20 hours on pro bono, the highest percentage of any firm in the rankings. This didn't happen by accident. The firm has a pro bono infrastructure that includes a full-time pro bono coordinator, it gives associates up to 100 hours a year of billable hour credit for pro bono work and it credits partners' compensation up to 50 hours for pro bono. The firm maintains partnerships with charitable organizations, runs legal clinics and even made each member of the management committee sign a pledge to increase their own pro bono.

A different kind of example of the hard work required to be successful at pro bono is Bingham McCutchen. A half-dozen recent mergers left the firm without a cohesive pro bono program. Last year, the head of the firm's pro bono committee and the deputy co-chair of its committee on associates worked with others to come up with a uniform, national policy. The result: Bingham went from 31st to 19th in the rankings.

Then there is Philadelphia's Saul Ewing, which shot up 97 places in the rankings. The rise was the direct result of the firm's decision to overhaul its loosely organized pro bono efforts. It started with hiring Karen Forman, founding director of the office of public interest law programs at the Temple University law school, as its first full-time pro bono counsel and followed with a series of internal and external initiatives.

These and other examples in Aneiro's piece drive home the point: Pro bono doesn't just happen. Firms need strategic plans for pro bono work as much as they need them for paying work.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on July 10, 2006 at 02:03 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)


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