They say that charity begins at home–and that’s probably a good thing, since it is in shorter than usual supply at many Am Law 200 firms.

Average pro bono hours for lawyers at Am Law 200 firms plummeted 8 percent in 2010 to their lowest level in three years, reversing a decade of steady growth. The overall average percentage of lawyers who did more than 20 hours of pro bono work dipped 5.2 percent.

Four firms saw their total pro bono hours fall by more than half last year: Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle; Gordon & Rees; Holme Roberts & Owen; and Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan. (Average pro bono hours per lawyer slid to 13.4 from 32.5 at Curtis, Mallet; to 2.2 from 6.2 at Gordon & Rees; to 15.6 from 38.5 at Holme Roberts; and to 8.7 from 29 at Quinn.)

While two firms saw their average pro bono hours per lawyer fall by more than 50 percent, with per-lawyer averages sliding to 32.8 hours from 72.3 at Sutherland Asbill & Brennan and to 14.7 hours from 30.5 at Frost Brown Todd. (As is our usual practice, tallies of pro bono hours are based on work performed by U.S. lawyers only. Secondments are not included.)

“Pro bono typically doesn’t drop during recessions, but past cycles have shown that the transition out of an economic downturn, as we’re experiencing now, is a challenging time for charitable legal work,” says Pro Bono Institute president Esther Lardent. “Often what happens [is that] firms are still so nervous from the downturn that they don’t staff up to meet the pickup in client demand, and when you have limited resources, fee-paying work takes priority. You also have to consider that redundancy programs have largely focused on junior asso­ciates, which impacts pro bono, as most of the work is geared toward younger lawyers.”

The most significant decline among the 174 firms to participate in this year’s survey (down from 191 a year ago) was at Quinn. The business litigation powerhouse—which had what name partner A. Wil­liam Urquhart described in our Am Law 100 coverage as having its “best-ever year financially” in 2010, with revenue growing 31 percent and profits per partner hitting a record $3.62 million ["Growth Returns to The Am Law 100," May]—saw its total pro bono hours dive 58 percent. Its per-lawyer average dropped 70 percent.

Urquhart says the slide reflects the firm’s lawyers being swamped with fee-paying work during 2010. “Our lawyers have been exceedingly busy over the last 18 months—they billed time at historically high levels,” he says.

Latham & Watkins had the single largest fall in total pro bono hours—almost 47,000—losing its place as The Am Law 200′s biggest overall pro bono contributor to Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, even though that firm’s total hours also dropped below 200,000. (Average hours per lawyer fell 9 percent at Skadden and 30 percent at Latham, even though each firm increased its U.S. lawyer head count during the year—Skadden by 5.6 percent and Latham by 10.4 percent.)

Latham pro bono committee chairman Charles Crompton says that the drop is merely a return to the firm’s normal, prerecession level of unpaid legal work. To keep its attorneys busy during the downturn in 2008 and 2009, the firm “channeled even greater resources to our pro bono program,” he says. Latham’s lawyers still managed a healthy average of 107 hours of pro bono work in 2010—significantly higher than its per-lawyer average of 97.1 hours in 2007, but far lower than its average of 164.3 hours in 2008 and 153.5 hours in 2009.

At the bottom in average hours per lawyer was Gordon & Rees; that firm’s 411 U.S. attorneys performed 914 hours of qualifying pro bono work in 2010, for an average of just 2.2 hours per lawyer—down 64 percent from the previous year. A Gordon & Rees official says that the drop was due not to economic conditions, but to the resolution of three significant pro bono matters, which collectively accounted for approximately half of the firm’s 2,000 pro bono hours in 2009.

Similarly, a Curtis, Mallet spokesman says that his firm’s pro bono hours are subject to fluctuations depending on its current portfolio of work, adding that pro bono hours are up 10 percent in the first quarter of 2011. (Frost Brown Todd did not respond to The American Lawyer ‘s requests for comment, and Sutherland declined to comment.)

Among pro bono leaders, Covington & Burling has usurped last year’s champion Jenner & Block at the top of the pro bono rankings, racking up 109,785 hours at a survey-topping average of 167 hours per attorney.

“The downturn has had absolutely no impact on our commitment to pro bono–it’s part of the fabric of the firm,” says Anthony Herman, the longtime chair of Covington’s pro bono committee. “To be sure, there are costs associated with pro bono–the opportunity cost, in terms of the hours that at least in theory could be spent on fee-generating [work]; and the out-of-pocket costs such as travel expenses–but for us, cutting pro bono to save money has never been on the table.”

The firm provided almost 6,700 hours of pro bono advice to 13 detainees at Guantánamo Bay, securing habeas corpus hearings for seven men in the past two years–one of whom was released in 2010—and expects to have individual hearings for at least four more clients in the next 12 months [see "Guántanamo: Beyond Boumediene ," page 63]. Covington also devoted 5,400 pro bono hours to 35 separate family law cases, and continued to dedicate significant resources to death penalty work–securing one client of 17 years a pardon from his third death sentence.

Elsewhere, Fitzpatrick, Cella, Harper & Scinto; Holland & Hart; and Jackson Lewis all at least doubled their total pro bono hours in 2010. Three other firms–Hinshaw & Culbertson; McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter; and Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hamilton–had increases of more than 80 percent. Other big gainers included Schulte Roth & Zabel (77 percent), Kenyon & Kenyon (68 percent), and Cravath, Swaine & Moore (66 percent).

Schulte executive committee member Jeffrey Lenobel says that the increase is due to a broadening of its pro bono efforts. “We’ve always done a ton of pro bono hours, but historically it’s been pretty centralized in litigation,” he says. “Litigation only accounts for about 30 percent of our business, so we just didn’t have enough people getting involved.”

In 2010 the firm began requiring all of its lawyers to perform a minimum of 30 hours of pro bono each year, regardless of their practice area. Its U.S. lawyers contributed more than 56 hours on average last year–an increase of 62 percent. In addition to its litigation caseload, the firm acted on 20 transactional pro bono matters for Partners In Health on its aid efforts following the earthquake in Haiti. Schulte broke into the top 50 in the Am Law 200 pro bono rankings for the first time as a result, moving up 60 places—trailing only Jackson Lewis, which leaped 88 places, and Sheppard Mullin, which moved up 83 places.

“Many firms are still in expense-cutting mode, so you can now tell who is really taking pro bono seriously,” Lenobel says, adding that in the ten years he’s been on Schulte’s executive committee, there has “not even been one discussion on cutting any aspect of our pro bono initiatives.”

The question now is what happens next. With the economy recovering and associate ranks starting to grow once more, Covington’s Herman says he hopes that 2010′s decline will be an anomaly. “Lawyers have an ethical responsibility to do pro bono work and to give back to the community, where the needs are greater than ever,” he says. “One positive sign is that many major clients are increasingly asking for information on our pro bono work as part of the retention process. I’m hopeful that companies will continue to encourage their law firms to do pro bono work, and that it will have the desired turnaround effect.”