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As part of my standard talk, I like to remind law firm partners that, when it comes to pro bono activity, never have so many owed so much to so few. This year we’re pleased to report a slight increase in activity; by our measure, about 37 percent of Am Law 200 lawyers performed at least 20 hours of pro bono work last year. Of course, this also means that almost two-thirds did little or nothing. I was merrily climbing onto this high horse recently when the head of an august firm challenged my remark. His essential statement: We do plenty, you just don’t count it. In fact, we don’t count all of what he considered public service, and his partners could be doing more anyway. His remark suggested some confusion in the marketplace over what sort of work we consider to be pro bono. Evidence of that confusion was compounded by a few tussles we had this year with firms who sought credit for unpaid work that, while laudable, didn’t meet our standards. This included an elaborate courtroom defense for an indicted governor and a series of assignments for various mainstream and properous arts organizations. We’d like to resolve the uncertainty, at least as much of it as possible. Our current definition seems too general: Legal work for indigent people or groups, or on behalf of an individual or group seeking to validate an important civil right. Where would work for a municipal government-strapped for taxpayer cash or otherwise-fit in? Or work for nonprofits here and abroad that may be able to afford legal counsel, but that would rather put their funds toward serving their core humanitarian missions? Or work that started as a volunteer matter but ended up with a large fee award from a favorably impressed judge? Some of that should count, and we need to make it clear just what does. To that end, we will consult with various interested parties during the next few months, and invite you to send your recommendations to us directly. We will publish an expanded definition later this year. Whatever definition we embrace will focus on legal work. Lawyers have a professional responsibility to assist those who can’t afford their help. And this year, again, we hope that more than one-third of The Am Law 200 will find the time to do just that. But firms are also citizens of their communities. As an institutional matter, we applaud the work they do in the name of public service and good citizenship. And next year we’d like to count that, too. This will be an occasion for you to report all the tutoring, fund-raising, board-serving hours that firms perform-of which we take only occasional notice. If it’s true that we have missed crediting firms for their public service and gift giving, we’ll be glad to remedy that omission. Please consider this the first notice that next year we will be asking for your numbers in this area, too. To be very clear, we do not consider good citizenship work to be a substitute for pro bono legal work. And we won’t factor those hours into our A-Listformula. As you’ll see in our report, the race to make the list has become intense. Seven firms, including a few perennials, have dropped off. Their replacements include four firms appearing on the list for the first time. We would like to think this means that good work is rewarded. And it’s a warning to the rest that in the contest between reality and reputation, you don’t want to bet too heavily or for too long on the latter. The world has changed, and those other folks aren’t just gaining; some are now in the passing lane.

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