We have excellent news this month about pro bono. The Am Law 200 reported a record amount of volunteer legal service last year: 4,842,063 hours, an increase of 590,000 hours from 2006. Using a blended rate of $300 an hour, that means the big firms contributed roughly $1.45 billion in pro bono time. Some lawyers really do give at the office.

Per capita hours were up to 53.6, almost an 8 percent annual increase. Perhaps more important, the firms reported that 42.3 percent of their lawyers (38,196, to be exact) performed at least 20 hours of pro bono work, a 12 percent increase and a new record. Overall, of the 179 firms reporting in both 2006 and 2007, 59 percent showed an increase in both hours and lawyer participation.

These are real achievements, and part of a longer, positive trend. In the last five years, the number of hours performed by The Am Law 200 has jumped by 1.5 million. During those five years, average hours per lawyer have grown by 27 percent, to 53.6 percent. And the number of big-firm lawyers reporting at least 20 hours of pro bono has grown by about 40 percent.

In this space I am sometimes critical of your efforts. Not this time. The word that comes to mind is, simply, “congratulations.” To state what should be obvious, the private bar is performing a public service; clients are getting help they sorely need; and the lawyers who did this work are not only meeting their professional obligations, they are enjoying some personal satisfaction that is not always rampant in their corridors.

In this issue, and throughout the month on americanlawyer.com, we focus on outstanding pro bono work and some of the issues surrounding its future. The work can be breathtaking: From helping disabled veterans win their federal benefits to securitizing microfinance loans across the globe, from representing Chinese Muslims trapped at Guantánamo-men literally without a country-to fighting off mortgage scammers, this is work that reminds many people why they set out to be lawyers. And it serves as an example to the rest of the bar, who haven’t found the right project quite yet.

Is the progress irreversible? Are the pro bono programs sufficiently institutionalized that they will withstand economic and other pressures? We think so. For evidence, check out Nate Raymond’s assessment of the recession’s likely impact on pro bono (“A Silver Lining,” page 100) and Daphne Eviatar’s report on the cadre of pro bono leaders who are managing their firm’s practices with the same zeal of any practice group leader (“Pro Bono Pros,” page 104).

There is, of course, room for improvement. More than half the lawyers in the reporting firms are not meeting even the modest goal of 20 hours a year. How modest? Think of it as 100 minutes a month. Still too busy?

A few lawyers won’t do the work out of pique, but for more it’s because their particular skills, they say, don’t lend themselves to volunteer efforts. But their obligation to help those who cannot afford legal services is not a matter of preference or taste.

If they don’t want to do the work, at least they could buy their way out of their obligation. It could be done simply. We’d need an umbrella group to accept and administer the money on behalf of the nation’s legal services programs. Then the 52,178 lawyers who failed to meet the 20-hour minimum could instead donate a sum equal to 20 billable hours. Using the $300 blended rate, that would yield roughly $313 million, or 90 percent of the Legal Services Corporation’s 2007 budget. If the lawyers working at the 13 firms that report no pro bono activity-their silence is shameful-were added, the budget would actually exceed LSC’s. (For the 13, see page 130.) And we could have a raffle. The prize: doing the 20 hours of 501 (c)(3) work to create the Bar Foundation for Public Service.