Editor's note: This is the first in an occasional series - Pro Bono Matters - that highlights individual examples of law firm pro bono efforts from firms across Pennsylvania.
For the past eight years, the nation's largest law firms have consistently increased the average number of pro bono hours they complete as well as the number of lawyers per firm with more than 20 hours of pro bono work a year, according to The Legal's sister publication, The American Lawyer.
But each summer when the magazine's list comes out and shows how individual firms fared, Pennsylvania firms seem to be anything but average. In 2006, local firms made lists for the most improved and the biggest decliners in terms of numbers of pro bono hours.
The average number of pro bono hours per lawyer for the 15 Pa.-based firms on the list was 35.6 hours. The national average from the 200 firms on the survey was 41.96, which includes 14 firms that reported no pro bono hours.
The Legal receives information about law firms' pro bono efforts on a regular basis, so local firms are certainly giving back to their community. A look at the current state of pro bono across the commonwealth can help demonstrate where firms have aided the public and where more pro bono efforts are needed.
Ronda B. Goldfein is the executive director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania. She said there is a lot of interest from the larger firms in Pennsylvania to work on pro bono matters, but unfortunately she hears that more from other public interest groups. Goldfein said the project hasn't had great success with a large sampling of firms, but has had a few consistent contributors.
Conflicts can often be a problem, and some of the group's cases are "messy," she said.
"We've had some difficulty finding a lot of big firms willing to take our cases," Goldfein said.
A lot of the cases are about how the group's clients feel when they are discriminated against because they have AIDS, but there is little in the way of damages. That might not be as interesting to attorneys as would a client who lost his or her job because of the disease, Goldfein said.
The project is ideally set up to receive a third of its funding each from federal contracts, private foundations and private individuals, but more often than not the federal contracts play the biggest role, she said. Pro bono efforts in terms of time and money are "very important" to the organization, Goldfein said.
One of the biggest helps to her cause, she said, was the effort of the Philadelphia Bar Association in creating their "Raising the Bar" campaign. The campaign, which started in 2006 under the leadership of then-Chancellor Alan Feldman, asks firms to donate $300 per lawyer to public interest organizations. The money can be given to the campaign to spread around or the firm can earmark certain causes.
It was those earmarks that came in handy for the AIDS Law Project. Goldfein said the group received earmarks from several firms that it didn't even know had an interest in the organization. Once the project was aware of the firms that donated, Goldfein said they recruited attorneys from those firms to volunteer their time.
The "Raising the Bar" campaign is in its second year. In 2006, 133 firms contributed nearly $1.5 million, a 31 percent increase over the amount that firms donated individually in 2005, according to the bar association's Web site.
The campaign is at the mid-way mark for 2007, with 74 firms having committed to the donation, according to the site.
Some organizations have found it slightly easier to meet their fundraising marks.
Pittsburgh-based KidsVoice provides advocacy for children in cases involving abuse, neglect and dependency. The program's model brings together attorneys with social workers to handle the more than 5,000 cases of child dependency in the local courts.
Executive Director Scott M. Hollander said the group is still working on the inter-disciplinary model and doesn't often use pro bono help for direct dependency cases.
The organization has, however, received pro bono help from local firms in the areas of trusts and estates, disabilities, benefits and personal injury.
"We have a list of people waiting for these types of cases," Hollander said.
One firm spent a number of hours negotiating the group's lease and trademark issues while another helped on trusts and estates and benefits matters, he said.
One area that has been significantly benefited by the help of attorneys working pro bono is the organization's appellate matters. Hollander said the group doesn't have much appellate experience and one local firm has worked to get significant results for KidsVoice clients at the appellate level.
Unlike Goldfein's experience at the AIDS Law Project, Hollander said his group is helped by the fact that it represents children.
"You get to wear the white hat," he said.
That might be why KidsVoice gets so many unsolicited calls from the bar to help with various projects, Hollander said. The strong support the group has received from pro bono efforts has helped it get grants, he said, because foundations see how committed the community is to the organization.
Sara Woods, executive director of Philadelphia Volunteers for the Indigent Program, said she is thrilled that more firms are putting pro bono efforts as a hard-line item in their budgets.
VIP, she said, has been very lucky to have strong relationships with several firms in the area, both large and small.
"Of course, there's always a need and we could certainly use more help," she said.
The program has traditionally handled family law issues relating to custody, child support and divorce proceedings. There are two areas, Woods said, that have popped up recently that attorneys may view as "more exciting" and "sexy."
The program has taken on several transactional matters in representing non-profits who in turn represent low-income clients. Woods said the attorneys either help with incorporating the nonprofit or handle legal matters the groups face.
The other issue that has demanded a lot of legal need is that of predatory lending, Woods said.
While transactional issues create the potential for conflict, Woods said VIP has seen far fewer conflicts than expected. She said the housing issues probably present the most conflict concerns.
In its latest pro bon report, The American Lawyer highlighted a number of areas to which firms have dedicated pro bono time. The traditional death penalty, asylum and employment matters that often make up pro bono cases have been joined by the defense of prisoners' rights in Guantanamo Bay and the representation of victims in insurance cases stemming from Hurricane Katrina.
Some firms find it useful to dedicate their pro bono efforts to a certain cause or campaign - such as Saul Ewing's focus on veterans and the elderly - while other firms encourage a "laissez faire" attitude, as Drinker Biddle & Reath pro bono committee chairman David Abernethy puts it, that allows attorneys to take on whichever pro bono matters interest them.
There are other ways to give to the public interest sector aside from legal expertise or pure dollars, Hollander said. Law firms have donated their conference space and video equipment. They have crafted mailings and sent them out on the firms' dime. They could support an issue and promote that issue to their paying clients, he said.
Not all attorneys have to give back through legal work either, Hollander said. Serving as a mentor or joining a board could be equally as beneficial.
By serving on a board, an attorney could direct a firm's resources toward that organization through pro bono help in non-legal areas such as marketing or accounting, he said.
If your firm has an interesting pro bono story to tell, please contact Gina Passarella at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 215-557-2494.