Letter From The President Of The New York County Lawyers' Association

2009-10-04 00:00

To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:

Pro Bono Publico:Keeping The Promise

Membership in the bar is a privilege burdened with conditions. - Benjamin N. Cardozo, In re Rouss , 221 N.Y. 81, 84 (1917)

Every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay. A lawyer should aspire to render at least (50) hours of pro bono publico legal services per year. . . . - ABA Model Rule 6.1

Is the pro bono glass half full or half empty? Is pro bono legal work booming or contracting? Or is it enjoying a temporary surge as a way to fill time productively while waiting for billable work to recover? Will economic recovery bring more or fewer pro bono resources?

First, the good news: A 2005 survey of national pro bono legal work prepared by the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service1asserted that "[o]ver the past 25 years, pro bono work for civil legal matters has grown in scope and visibility. Law firms, law schools, corporate counsel offices and government law offices have worked toward integrating pro bono functions and policies into their environment." The report spoke warmly of the 138 (now 146) firms that had become signatories of the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge, committing to devote 3- 5 percent of the firm's billable hours to pro bono service. Two thirds of the 1100 lawyers surveyed reporting doing "some" pro bono work, and 46 percent reported meeting the ABA's aspirational goal of 50 hours of pro bono service per year.

Second, the not-so-good news. The Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge is open to any firm with 50 or more attorneys. According to the ABA Lawyer Demographics table for 2009,2there are approximately 950 eligible firms. The 146 signatory firms represent only 15 percent of the eligible firms. So firms are not rushing to make a public commitment to significant pro bono work.

The American Lawyer Pro Bono Scorecard3ranked the AmLaw 200 firms according to their pro bono contributions, based on a combination of the average number of pro bono hours per lawyer and the percentage of lawyers with more than 20 pro bono hours. One hundred and seventeen of the AmLaw 200 firms were signatories of the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge, representing 80 percent of the signatories. Not surprisingly, the signatories to the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge cluster strongly in the top half of the AmLaw 200 pro bono rankings - 87 of the top 100 are signatories, as compared to only 30 of the second 100. Very surprisingly, there is a significant difference between the general AmLaw 200 rankings (that is, the rankings based primarily on firm profitability, not on pro bono work) for the two groups. If there were no correlation between pro bono programs and general profitability, then the average overall ranking within the AmLaw 200 would be 100 for both groups. Instead, the average general AmLaw 200 ranking for the 117 signatories of the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge is 61 - much better than average - while the average ranking for the 83 non-signatories is 155 - much worse than average.

Two things stand out from these data: First, there is a significant distinction among firms in the importance that they attach to pro bono work. Second, significant pro bono commitments are correlated with economically successful firms. Although there are no comparable data available for corporate legal departments, one suspects that a similar phenomenon can be observed within them as well.

As we observe the first anniversary of last fall's market collapse, followed by waves of layoffs in the legal community, it would be tempting for legal employers to cut back on their pro bono commitments as part of their reductions in headcount. The data described above suggest that this may be a shortsighted and ultimately self-defeating course. Pro bono opportunities have historically been viewed as attractions for well- qualified, dedicated attorneys, as well as a training ground for young associates. Certainly they speak of a firm's commitment to the broader community, as opposed to its narrow economic interest. At a time of obviously increased need for pro bono legal services, coupled with government cutbacks in legal assistance programs, we should stay the course, maintaining and, if possible, increasing our pro bono commitments.


Ann B. Lesk