A year ago, Lehman Brothers appeared solvent, Bernard Madoff was a trusted name and the global economic crisis was still called a downturn. Even then, pro bono advocates worried that altruism would be a casualty of hard times at the country's top law firms.
Judging by firms' performance last year, those fears may have been unfounded. As a group, the nation's 200 highest-grossing firms devoted more hours to pro bono than ever. Nearly half of Am Law 200 lawyers committed 20 hours or more to pro bono last year, and on average, lawyers spent more than 60 hours on pro bono matters.
In the past, both recessions (such as the one in the early '90s) and periods of intense economic growth (such as the dot-com boom in the late '90s) have caused firms to cut back on pro bono. But the explosion in this type of legal work since 2004 has shown little sign of letting up. Pro bono may not transcend firm economics, but it's been able to resist the most recent boom-and-bust cycle. Why?
Pro bono specialists at firms, nonprofits and academia point to several factors. The institutionalization of pro bono at both firms and nonprofits has continued, spurred in part by the Pro Bono Institute's Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge and by our A-List rankings [see "A-List Rankings Show Power Shift Among Top Law Firms"]. A younger generation of lawyers at top firms expect pro bono work to be a central part of their careers. And the cataclysms of 9/11 and Katrina and upheavals over Guantanamo and the environment brought new lawyers into the pro bono ranks. Pro Bono Institute at Georgetown University Law Center. By 2008, the average pro bono contribution by Am Law 100 lawyers had risen 87 percent, to 71.8. Lawyers at Second Hundred firms increased their average contributions from 29 hours in 1998 to 33.2 in 2008.
The boom that sent firm revenues and profits skyrocketing in the 1990s forced pro bono into retreat. The average amount of time that lawyers at Am Law 100 firms spent on pro bono work declined by 13 percent between 1995 and 2000, from 44.1 hours per lawyer to 38.4. (i>The American Lawyer did not begin tracking per-lawyer pro bono averages at Second Hundred firms until 1998.) "It was such a go-go period that you couldn't wring out excess capacity for pro bono," says Esther Lardent, president of the
Pro bono faced new challenges after the Internet bubble burst. The arrival of $160,000 associate salaries and the financial impact of 9/11 forced firms to hunker down, and the amount of time that Am Law 200 firms devoted to pro bono increased only slightly. Says Lardent: "Both upturns and downturns can be somewhat difficult times for pro bono."
Or at least they used to be. After enjoying double-digit or near-double-digit growth through 2007, in 2008 Am Law 100 firms recorded their worst financial performance since the first Bush presidency. Second Hundred firms suffered as well. Yet the commitment to pro bono has increased substantially in the past five years.
"The difference now is that firms understand the institutional importance of a healthy pro bono program," says Kimball Anderson, who founded Winston & Strawn's pro bono committee in 1977 and has chaired it ever since. Anderson says that the creation of the A-List in 2003 helped drive the change, since that designation had marketing and recruiting value. "Some might say [The American Lawyer's] profit and revenue rankings have had a pernicious effect on the profession," says Anderson. "In the pro bono area, the rankings' effects have all been good." (A firm's pro bono performance counts for one-third of its A-List score.)