Despite a mixed bag in terms of where they fell in the rankings, Pennsylvania law firms showed an increased commitment to pro bono work in 2008, according to The American Lawyer‘s annual pro bono report, which found the Am Law 200 firms performed more pro bono work last year than any time since the magazine started tracking the data.

According to The American Lawyer‘s report issued earlier this month, pro bono hours typically fall in bad recessions and big boom times as firms concentrate on for-profit work. That wasn’t the case nationally in 2008, a year firms showed a combined increase in the average hours per lawyer spent on pro bono and the percentage of attorneys who completed 20 or more hours of pro bono work.

In looking at the rankings, eight of the 15 Pennsylvania firms represented fell down the chart, while seven moved up the chart. But 13 firms had an increase in the percentage of attorneys performing more than 20 hours of pro bono work and 10 saw an increase in the average hours each attorney spent on pro bono efforts.

Dechert far outpaced its counterparts in the state, coming in fourth nationally. That was up from eighth place in 2007 and 68th place in 2006.

Suzanne E. Turner, chairwoman of Dechert’s pro bono practice, said the firm’s rise up the chart was due to a combination of an overall top-down commitment to pro bono, a number of new cases coming in the door and two years of a mandatory requirement that each attorney complete 25 or more hours of pro bono work a year.

She said the firm made a commitment to dedicate 3 percent of its billable time to pro bono work and expected full buy-in from its attorneys to help meet that goal.

According to The American Lawyer‘s pro bono report, Dechert averaged 114.1 pro bono hours per attorney in 2008 compared to 85 in 2007. Because of the way the magazine calculates full-time equivalent attorneys, the firm’s percentage of attorneys handling more than 20 hours of pro bono work was over 100 percent at 111.8 percent. That was up from 98.1 percent in 2007.

Turner said that nearly everyone has met Dechert’s internal requirement of 25 hours a year.

When asked whether the numbers may have gone up in 2008 because there was less paid work for firms to handle, Turner pointed to the typical recessionary trend of pro bono work dropping.

“Did more people do pro bono work because they were less busy?” she asked. “Maybe some.”

But Turner said the firm’s improvement was due to a number of factors and was something she hopes would continue beyond the recession.

Philadelphia partner Ethan Fogel oversees pro bono efforts out of that office. He said the work is structured into practice groups similar to the way for-profit work is structured. While the firm is open to several types of pro bono matters, having set practice areas helps the firm do more than just handle the one-off cases, providing greater impact through the creation of programs dedicated to certain areas of the law.

Dechert handles issues like child advocacy, prisoners’ rights, tax, special education, veterans affairs and Social Security matters. But three projects that have worked out especially well in Philadelphia, Fogel said, are cases involving the Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA, landlord-tenant disputes and nonprofit work connected to the United Way.

The VAWA cases typically offer representation to immigrant women who were abused by their U.S. citizen husbands. The firm helps them acquire the ability to remain in the country without relying on their husbands’ citizenship.

The United Way program has been a great way for the firm to find appropriate pro bono work for its transactional attorneys, he said. It is a two-part program with one part using United Way as a referral agency for nonprofits that need matter-specific representation. The other component uses a corporate checklist created by Dechert to analyze the health of nonprofits to ensure compliance.

Dechert has two programs in the landlord-tenant arena as well. The firm works with Community Legal Services, which handles referrals, and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, which provides students to help on the cases. The groups represent tenants faced with eviction. Most of the work is done in municipal court, with some appeals going up to the common pleas courts, Fogel said. The firm has worked on about 200 cases in the last year. Pepper Hamilton joined in about six months ago and Fogel said he hopes more firms get on board as there is no shortage of cases in this area.

“The more the merrier,” he said. “It’s not an area of competition.”

Also in this practice area, Dechert and Pepper Hamilton have teamed up to help create a mandatory mediation program for landlord/tenant disputes that make it to the common pleas court appellate level. The program, set to be rolled out this fall, is spearheaded by Judge Sandra Mazer Moss with significant help from Judge Peter F. Rogers, the Philadelphia Bar Association and the two law firms, Fogel said.

The Landlord-Tenant Appellate Mediation Program, or LTAMP for short, will require all litigants to appear before a volunteer settlement master. The bar association is helping to create a CLE program to train and provide the settlement masters, he said.

Pro Bono Performance

Blank Rome, Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll, Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney and Drinker Biddle & Reath made the biggest jumps up the chart. Blank Rome rose from 111th to 93rd, Ballard Spahr jumped from 54th to 43rd, Buchanan Ingersoll moved from 102nd to 94th and Drinker Biddle rose from 130th to 119th. All of the firms, with the exception of Buchanan Ingersoll, saw a rise in both metrics tracked by the magazine. Buchanan Ingersoll increased the percentage of attorneys handling more than 20 hours, but its average hours per attorney remained flat.

K&L Gates saw the biggest fall down the chart of any Pennsylvania firm, falling 27 spots to 126th. The firm saw declines in both key indicators with the average hours falling to 28.3 and the percentage of attorneys performing more than 20 hours dropping to 32.1 from 41.4 percent. A call to the chairman of the firm’s pro bono committee wasn’t immediately returned.

Morgan Lewis & Bockius came in second among Pennsylvania firms, placing 30th on this year’s chart. It fell five spots but increased the average hours and percentage of attorneys handling pro bono work. Pepper Hamilton moved up four spots to 56th place with an increase in both categories. Stevens & Lee was able to move up the chart four spots to 173rd even though its average number of hours per attorney fell to 9.6. The firm’s percentage of attorneys handling more than 20 hours, however, increased to 12.3.

Saul Ewing dropped 11 spots to 68th place despite increasing its average hours per attorney and maintaining the percentage of attorneys who performed more than 20 hours of pro bono work. Reed Smith fell six spots to 76th place despite improvement in both categories. Cozen O’Connor fell one place to 115th after its average hours fell slightly and the percentage of attorneys increased. Duane Morris dropped seven spots to 146th despite increases in both metrics.

Making its last appearance on the list was the now dissolved Wolf Block, which dropped two spaces to 157th while improving both indicators tracked in the survey. Fox Rothschild fell three spots to 166th while remaining static in the average hours category and improving the number of attorneys handling more than 20 hours. •