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Defining Pro Bono

A year ago, as The American Lawyer released its annual ranking of pro bono at the nation's 200 largest law firms, the magazine's editors were forced to confront a definitional question: What sort of work would they count as pro bono? As editor-in-chief Aric Press explained at the time, they had a definition, but some lawyers were confused about its application, and that confusion was compounded by "a few tussles" with firms over whether to credit their unpaid work as pro bono.

One such tussle, as we recounted here, was with Chicago's Winston & Strawn, which reported a spike in pro bono hours, driven by its no-fee commitment of 20 lawyers to the defense of former Illinois Gov. George Ryan against federal fraud and racketeering charges. The American Lawyer editors decided that this work did not meet their definition of pro bono, noting that Ryan was hardly indigent and that the case involved no important issue of civil rights.

But to resolve the uncertainty going forward, Press promised last year to revise the definition. "[W]e will consult with various interested parties during the next few months, and invite you to send your recommendations to us directly," he wrote at the time.

Fast forward to today, and Press has this to say: "Easier promised, it turns out, than drafted." Nonetheless, after a year of meeting with interested parties from around the nation, the magazine's editors decided to adopt the definition used by The Pro Bono Institute in conjunction with its Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge. Here is what it says:

"The term 'pro bono' refers to activities of the firm undertaken normally without expectation of fee and not in the course of ordinary commercial practice and consisting of (i) the delivery of legal services to persons of limited means or to charitable, religious, civic, community, governmental, and educational organizations in matters which are designed primarily to address the needs of persons of limited means; (ii) the provision of legal assistance to individuals, groups, or organizations seeking to secure or protect civil rights, civil liberties, or public rights; and (iii) the provision of legal assistance to charitable, religious, civic, community, governmental, or educational organizations in matters in furtherance of their organizational purposes, where the payment of standard legal fees would significantly deplete the organization's economic resources or would be otherwise inappropriate."

To that definition, Press adds four provisos:

  1. Pro bono hours by summer associates or paralegals will not be counted.
  2. Firms must commit fee awards to pro bono purposes or charitable organizations.
  3. Work for well-endowed nonprofits will not count unless it addresses the needs of the poor or protects civil or public rights.
  4. Service on boards or for bars does not count.

It all strikes me as a very lawyerly way of getting to a very simple point: Pro bono publico means for the public good.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on July 2, 2007 at 03:00 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

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