Many large law firms are organized into “practice groups,” the benefits of which include providing an infrastructure for training lawyers, staffing new matters and developing substantive areas of expertise. As firms’ involvement in and commitment to pro bono programs have increased, their pro bono practices have likewise grown to span many substantive practice areas. However, in contrast to the organizational structure for firms’ fee-generating work, pro bono programs have historically not been organized into substantive practice groups.

While many lawyers are interested in participating in pro bono programs and putting their skills to work for the community, they may also be hesitant to jump into a new area of practice. One way firms can bolster their efforts to develop subject matter expertise within their pro bono programs, find more pro bono opportunities for lawyers and provide attorneys and clients with additional administrative support is to develop pro bono practice groups that exist on both an office and firmwide level.

Relationships with legal services organizations can help guide those efforts. For instance, firms hoping to establish successful pro bono practice groups focused on children’s rights, immigration and homelessness should consider teaming up with organizations specifically committed to those areas of advocacy — as our firm has in Philadelphia with the Support Center for Child Advocates (the Support Center), the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), and the Homeless Advocacy Project (HAP).

Long-term partnerships ensure that as lawyers and staff spend thousands of hours a year handling dozens of matters with these organizations, firms develop expertise in niche areas that allows them to represent clients with more confidence and success. By taking advantage of collective expertise, firms can avoid having to reinvent the wheel each time they attempt to help their pro bono clients solve problems where time is of the essence — whether the goal is to find safe homes for abused and neglected children, seek asylum for immigrants who are in danger of being tortured or killed if they are deported, or securing benefits for the city’s homeless.

Where should a firm begin if it wants to establish a practice group model for pro bono? The following six steps are essential.

Match an Interest with a Need

The first step toward developing a successful pro bono practice group is to identify an area of real and underserved legal need in the communities in which you practice, which matches the interests of lawyers at your firm.

Once you identify a good match between need and interest, you can identify an organization or organizations in each specific community where the firm has an office with whom to partner.

There are a number of ways to choose a public interest organization with which to partner. For example, attorneys or their family members often serve on boards of not-for-profit organizations that support certain underserved populations or attorneys may have volunteered with organizations earlier in their career or during law school.

In particular, it is important to partner with organizations which have an established pro bono program, good screening of incoming matters, excellent training materials and sufficient ongoing support and mentoring of volunteer attorneys. HIAS, the Support Center and HAP all have these characteristics.

Get Organized

Once your firm has identified an area of interest and an organization with whom to partner in a particular community, it should designate a “point person” with the organization. This lawyer serves as the relationship attorney with that organization. The point person generally handles all correspondence with the organization regarding new cases and the organization’s legal needs. He/she also serves as the organization’s representative with the firm, recruiting attorneys to take pro bono matters in its practice area.

As is the case with paying clients, the point person develops an understanding of the organization’s goals and becomes adept at responding to its needs. Running all new matters through one contact person ensures a better understanding of the status of the relationship, including how many cases are currently active, who is handling those cases, and whether capacity exists to take on more work.

This structure helps define the pro bono practice group, allowing the firm to develop institutional memory and an understanding of the history of the relationship with the organization and its clients. The point person becomes a portal for information regarding prior matters and facilitates knowledge transfer to the attorneys handling current cases.

Focus on Training

Once the firm has formed a relationship with an organization serving the identified population and chosen a point person for that relationship, the firm and the organization should organize training sessions. This training is the first step to developing experience in the identified substantive areas and serves as a critical risk management tool, to ensure that all attorneys are prepared to take on referred matters.

Ideally, the lawyers who are trained first will develop into mentors for attorneys who subsequently join the pro bono practice group. As the firm’s collective expertise grows, it reduces the uncertainty that might have prevented other firm attorneys from becoming involved. Offering continuing legal education credit for the training is a good way to encourage attendance.

Consider hosting training sessions at your offices. You may find that colleagues who attend in-house training sessions sign up to take cases while the knowledge is fresh in their minds.

For example, our firm hosted a training session for the Support Center in the fall of 2008 that was attended by about eight Morgan Lewis attorneys who then became members of the firm’s pro bono practice group for child advocates. These attorneys contributed over 1,600 hours to Support Center matters in 2008.

Staff New Matters in Teams

Once you have established a practice group and trained your lawyers, you can focus on staffing. Staffing new matters in teams that include attorneys with varying degrees of experience within the pro bono practice group is extremely effective. It encourages attorneys who would not otherwise feel comfortable with the pro bono substantive area to take cases. For example, consider pairing a transactional attorney with a litigator.

Many of the matters that our firm’s Child Advocates practice group has handled through the Support Center involve drafting letters and speaking with various individuals in the child services sector of the state government, but ultimately end up in a hearing in front of a judge. Our transactional attorneys often feel more comfortable handling the pre-hearing aspects of the representation, but prefer to defer to their litigation colleagues to handle any court appearances.

When cases are staffed as a two-person team, both attorneys are familiar with the case and can divide the tasks according to their respective skill sets and comfort levels. Again, the clients benefit because they are getting the best representation at each stage of the process.

When considering staffing, it is often useful to assign one paralegal to manage all of the files for a particular pro bono practice group. That paralegal develops expertise in the subject matter and becomes very helpful in performing research and drafting projects.

For example, our firm has assigned one paralegal to manage the files for all of the asylum cases that we handle for HIAS. This paralegal has developed excellent research skills, particularly with respect to locating documents such as country condition reports that the attorneys often cite in support of an asylum application. This paralegal is an integral member of the team who builds support for the client’s asylum application

Leverage Administrative Resources

The pro bono practice group should also take advantage of all of the firm’s resources, just as with any other practice group at the firm. Such resources include technological resources (e.g., document management systems) as well as substantive updates relevant to the pro bono practice group (e.g., white papers). This is especially important for firms with offices in many locations.

Our firm has used one particular technological resource effectively with the asylum practice group. Just as we do for many of our clients, we have organized an electronic site, referred to as an “e-room,” which is accessible to all of the attorneys in the asylum practice group and which can also be shared (in its entirety or limited to certain sections) with attorneys from the organization, as appropriate. The dedicated paralegal has uploaded into various databases in the e-room documents used or created by attorneys from the firm who have worked on asylum matters.

The resources available include training materials, white papers, legal research, factual research, asylum applications, opinions, country reports, asylum forms, applicable statutes, and regulations and briefs. These documents are searchable by type of document as well as by bases for seeking asylum.

When a member of the practice group takes on a new client seeking asylum, he or she can simply log into the e-room to see whether anyone else from the group (around the firm) has ever filed a similar application or brief. Not only does the attorney have the relevant materials for that similar case immediately available, he or she also has the names of other attorneys throughout the firm who have handled similar cases to contact as references. These firmwide solutions make it easy for attorneys from all over the firm working in this area to share relevant information.

Encourage Participation

The infrastructure and training described above is important to getting pro bono practice groups started. To make those practice groups grow and thrive, you will need a high level of support from senior management. At our firm, all time spent working on pro bono matters is considered “billable,” which encourages our lawyers to get involved in the program. In addition, all members of senior management at the firm participate in our pro bono program.

We also consistently recognize achievements and commitment to the pro bono practice through monthly firmwide newsletters and annual pro bono awards. These efforts and the high level of support from senior management have been essential in allowing the pro bono practice groups to grow and thrive over the years.

A solid practice group structure, paired with support from leadership, can help any firm build a successful pro bono practice. By helping you maximize resources and experience to provide the best possible service to your pro bono clients, the practice group model can add up to a sum truly greater than its parts.

When cases are staffed as a two-person team, both attorneys are familiar with the case and can divide the tasks according to their respective skill sets and comfort levels. Again, the clients benefit because they are getting the best representation at each stage of the process.

James E. DelBello, a litigation partner at Morgan Lewis & Bockius, is chairman of the firm’s pro bono committee in Philadelphia. He can be contacted at jdelbello@morganlewis.com.

Polly A. Hayes, a litigation associate at the firm, assisted with research and drafting for this article. She can be contacted at phayes@morganlewis.com.