When he became managing partner of Bingham McCutchen’s New York office two years ago, Robert M. Dombroff’s mandate was to hire more attorneys and raise the outpost’s profile. Pro bono, he realized, would be part of that, but how to be more than just another cog in the pro bono machinery?

“Everywhere you went you would just be one of a variety of firms doing the same thing,” he said. He wanted to “make us stand out from the pack.”

The solution was what the profession calls “signature” pro bono-in this case, a commitment by Bingham to provide legal support for a group of Harlem schoolchildren and their families through financier George Weiss’ Say Yes to Education foundation. Since the organization supports the kids from preschool through high school, Bingham was making a 15-year commitment.

Such are the dynamics of pro bono publico practice: in Dombroff’s words, “the intersection of doing good and good business.” As Dombroff notes, the program is bringing Bingham recognition, boosting morale and fulfilling his attorneys’ obligation to help the downtrodden-”part of that commitment you make as a lawyer.”

Once again, The National Law Journal recognizes the firms that met the call from people or organizations that otherwise might not have benefited from the advice of counsel. Selecting the recipients of our 2006 Pro Bono Awards was tough-we received scores of nominations for worthwhile efforts, but settled on four firms of singular achievement in the areas of human and civil rights:

Perkins Coie of Seattle was among the first to recognize its obligation to defend the rights of people like Salim Hamdan, who had been a driver for Osama bin Laden and was among the so-called “enemy combatants” being held indefinitely at the U.S. military base in GuantÁnamo Bay, Cuba.

Sidley Austin launched its own signature capital litigation project, fielding 80 attorneys on behalf of 15 death row inmates in Alabama.

Heller Ehrman helped prosecute two men who murdered a nun in Brazil.

New York firm Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel challenged a Florida law that essentially drove nonparty-related organizations, including the League of Women Voters, out of the business of registering voters.

Across the profession, firms have been taking steps to institutionalize the pro bono apparatus. Sidley, for example, eliminated a 60-hour yearly cap on pro bono hours that was taken into account for associate bonuses.

In the business of doing good
Standing up for the rule of law
Voting case smashed barriers
Firm’s project is a matter of life and death
A nun’s killers are brought to justice

“The firm has made it easier for those who want to do pro bono to step forward and volunteer,” said John Gallo, a partner in Sidley’s Chicago office.

The trends seem positive. Results for 2006 aren’t in yet, but 37.3% of the attorneys at the nation’s 200 largest law firms reported contributing at least 20 hours of pro bono work in 2005, The American Lawyer, an NLJ sister publication, reported in July. The magazine found an 8.2% gain in the number of lawyers in those firms doing at least 20 hours of pro bono work.

The Pro Bono Institute at the Georgetown University Law Center reached similar findings. The large law firms the institute works with contributed 27,485 hours on average in 2005, compared with 22,520 hours in 2004. If that seems a relatively modest increase, it’s “trending in the right direction,” said Esther Lardent, the institute’s president.

To take a longer view, in 1995, 130 firms reported contributing 1.58 million hours to pro bono law; in 2005, the 81 firms that have reported to the institute thus far gave away more than 2.2 million hours, Lardent said. “Obviously, firms have increased in size,” she said, “but that is a 41% increase with about two-thirds of the firms reporting.”

The institute found that 61% of the work went in support of low-income people or groups that work with them.

As large firms have become even larger, they’re looking for projects that leverage their complexity and reach. Such efforts are “more than just a compilation of their individual parts,” Lardent said. “They go so deep and they can have an amazing impact.”

That’s driving the move into signature projects like Bingham’s. The Say Yes to Education program adopts kindergarten classes in struggling schools and offers the social and educational support the children need to succeed, paying college tuition for the ones who graduate from high school. Bingham has helped families with immigration problems, helped one working mother fight eviction from the family’s apartment and helped another young mother who was left to care for her four younger siblings after their mother died.

Even nonlegal staff gets involved, Dombroff said, serving as playground monitors during summer school.

Lex Mundi, an international network of 160 law firms, created a foundation to support social entrepreneurship-that is, investment in enterprises intended to reap social as well as financial rewards. Already the organization has helped to establish businesses and arrange financing in India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Mauritius. It provided legal representation to a consumer group in South America.

“What sets us apart is that we have indigenous law firms, and many of them, so you have somebody in Slovakia who is indigenous to that country and knows their legal system. We would have a firm in India, where [U.S.] firms really can’t practice,” said David Roll of Steptoe & Johnson LLP in Washington, who is managing director of the foundation.

Elsewhere, the legal side of the Hurricane Katrina cleanup intensified in 2006, according to Lardent. New York’s Weil, Gotshal & Manges sent associates south to help residents fight for federal emergency benefits; Reed Smith helped to rebuild a battered criminal justice system; Strook & Strook & Lavan of New York teamed with the Citigroup Inc. legal department and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in a program called Second Wind, to help the small businesses that will be key to the rebuilding of New Orleans, Lardent said.

“It’s a pretty daunting task,” said H. Thomas Wells Jr. of Maynard, Cooper & Gale in Birmingham, Ala., co-chair of the American Bar Association’s Disaster Response and Preparedness Committee, permanent successor to the task force the ABA formed in response to the disaster on the Gulf Coast. “There’s a lot going on, and there are a lot of moving parts to it as well.”

Citigroup’s involvement reflects another development: enlistment of corporate law departments in pro bono work. Lardent’s institute thus far has signed 52 law departments to a commitment to involve at least half their staff attorneys in pro bono projects.

“There are legal issues and needs that we didn’t even talk about 10 years ago,” Lardent said, like predatory lending and Medicare prescription assistance problems. “We keep pushing the rock up the hill, but the hill gets steeper.”