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Between attorney layoffs, dipping profits and a lack of business, 2008 was a brutal year for many major law firms. But these difficult economic times have been a boon to one practice area: pro bono. A survey by the Pro Bono Institute at Georgetown University Law Center found that pro bono hours increased by 13 percent in 2008 among 135 of the firms involved in the institute’s Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge — a jump the report called “extraordinary.” That report follows earlier findings by National Law Journal affiliate The American Lawyer, which surveyed the 200 largest grossing firms and found that they spent more time in 2008 than ever before on pro bono matters. The publication found, for example, that at nearly half of the firms surveyed, lawyers committed 20 hours or more to pro bono last year and on average spent more than 60 hours on pro bono matters. Esther Lardent, president and chief executive officer of the institute, said that tough economic times in the past have spurred law firms to pull back on pro bono efforts and concentrate on money-making projects. That hasn’t happened this time around. “The reason that lots of people would give [for the increase in pro bono hours] is the slowdown in work,” Lardent said. “People certainly saw that slowdown in the last six months of 2008. But this time firms wanted to keep people engaged and have them learn new skills through pro bono.” While rankings and hour counts of law firm pro bono work have helped spur lawyers to donate their time, they have also helped shift the focus from quality to quantity, said Deborah L. Rhode, director of the Center on the Legal Profession at Stanford Law School. “It puts a focus on what can be measured, such as hours and attorney participation, without much quality control,” Rhode said. For instance, the attorneys who had time to engage in pro bono last year because of a slowdown in work aren’t necessarily the same attorneys with the desire or the right skills to serve pro bono clients. Thus, Rhode is encouraging law firms to take a larger role not only in getting attorney to do pro bono, but also to help ensure the quality of that pro bono work. The Pro Bono Institute launched the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge in 1993 to encourage pro bono work at law firms and set out pro bono goals. One of those goals is that firms put either 3 percent or 5 percent of their billable hours toward pro bono work. Another goal is that firms make an institutional commitment to pro bono and not rely on individual attorneys to find their own pro bono work. Firms reported completing more than 4.8 million hours of pro bono work in 2008 (not including any hours donated by the 11 firms involved in the Pro Bono Challenge that did not submit information for the report). Most of those hours were spent serving people of limited means or the organizations that assist them, according to the report. Vilia Hayes, co-chair of the pro bono committee at Hughes Hubbard & Reed, said that pro bono hours were up slightly for its attorneys last year. That growth isn’t an anomaly, however. Hughes Hubbard attorneys have been devoting a growing number of hours to pro bono in recent years. According to The American Lawyer, Hughes Hubbard attorneys spent an average 132 hours on pro bono matters in 2008. “We’ve had more and more people do it over the years,” Hayes said. “It’s been a steady progression.” While pro bono work used to go almost exclusively to litigators, the firm has found opportunities for all of its attorneys to get involved, even on the corporate side, she said. Despite the increase in donated pro bono hours overall, the report found that the average amount of money that firms donated to legal services organizations last year dropped slightly, from $349,604 to $346,198. The increase in pro bono hours isn’t just a byproduct of attorneys not having enough work to keep busy, Lardent said. Law firm pro bono efforts are more organized and streamlined than ever before. “We’re seeing a different attitude about pro bono,” she said. “Firms are being much more proactive. They’re taken on big-time signature projects.”

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