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Pro Bono Part 2: What Is Pro Bono?

As part of The American Lawyer's annual ranking of pro bono at the nation's 200 largest firms, reporter Carlyn Kolker, in her article The Good Fight, asks, What should or shouldn't count as pro bono? As she recounts, the issue came to a head in this year's survey, when Chicago's Winston & Strawn reported a spike in its pro bono hours, driven by the firm's no-fee defense of former Illinois Gov. George Ryan against federal fraud and racketeering charges. Winston devoted a 20-lawyer team headed by a top litigator to the six-month trial and is now handling the appeal.

The American Lawyer editors decided this work did not meet the definition of pro bono. They noted that Ryan receives an annual pension from the state of $195,000 and cannot be considered poor. The editors might have overlooked Ryan's lack of indigency if the case involved an important civil right, but it did not, they concluded.

This was a fairly easy call, in my opinion. But as Kolker points out, it leaves unanswered the larger question of what constitutes pro bono:

"Just who is too poor to afford legal services? How does a firm decide who is too rich or just poor enough to count as a pro bono client? Lawyers confront a host of tricky definitional questions every day: Can a law firm do legal work for a well-endowed nonprofit institution and still call it pro bono? Does volunteer work for a struggling for-profit institution count? Can a firm help a local district attorney's office and call it pro bono? What about free representation of major museums, well-funded private schools, or large cultural institutions?"

Kolker's well-reported article explores the question in depth. Meanwhile, the magazine's editor, Aric Press, promised a more certain definition, at least for the purpose of the survey. Acknowledging "confusion in the marketplace over what sort of work we consider to be pro bono," and calling the current definition "too general," Press said he would seek to resolve the uncertainty:

"To that end, we will consult with various interested parties during the next few months, and invite you to send your recommendations to us directly. We will publish an expanded definition later this year."

Whatever the definition, it will focus on legal work, Press said. "To be very clear, we do not consider good citizenship work to be a substitute for pro bono legal work."

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on July 10, 2006 at 02:05 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)


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