Francis Milone’s conversion was a long time coming.

“Historically, I had always been a busy lawyer,” says the former litigator, who has served as head of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius since 1999. “I billed large hours. But I had not spent any time on pro bono since my early days as an associate. Once I became chair, I began to think about the glue that holds an organization together. I began to think about our obligations as lawyers.”

Those obligations, he decided, went beyond profits. In 2005 he told Morgan Lewis partners at an annual retreat that they must rededicate themselves to pro bono work. He also announced that he would lead by example. Milone took on his first case in many years — representing a disabled teenager who is suing a public school district outside Philadelphia for better educational opportunities — and went on the road, preaching the good word about pro bono to lawyers in the firm’s 11 largest American offices. “I found pent-up demand for attention to this area,” he says.

Since the advent of The A-List in 2003, The American Lawyer has showcased firms that prove a healthy pro bono diet is not an impediment to fat profits. Morgan Lewis is our latest example. The firm jumped 94 spots in our current ranking, to No. 22 from 116 the year before. Morgan Lewis lawyers devoted an average of 67.1 hours to pro bono matters in 2006, a 112 percent increase over 2005, when they averaged 31.7 hours. And the firm didn’t have to take a bath on profits to do it: Revenue per lawyer was $770,000 in 2006, up 13.2 percent from 2005. Other firms, including Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher; LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae; and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, also posted impressive year-over-year gains in pro bono without taking a financial hit.

Still, a big move in our pro bono rankings is the exception, not the rule. An analysis of five years of pro bono data shows that most firms move up or down our rankings slowly, by two or three places each year. A wholesale pro bono revival is fairly rare. Gibson, Dunn; Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy; Shearman & Sterling; and Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal are the only firms that have climbed 75 spots or more into the top 20 of our pro bono chart in the five-year period. Other newcomers to the top 20 were already within striking distance, are new to The Am Law 200, or hadn’t supplied their numbers before. Firms in the highest echelon are an especially entrenched bunch — the top seven firms in 2006 finished in the top 10 in 2002.

Why haven’t more firms vaulted up the charts? One answer is that the bar is higher. In 2006 Am Law 200 firms logged 36 percent more pro bono hours than they did in 2002. More than 34,000 lawyers logged at least 20 pro bono hours, up from more than 24,000 in 2002. All but one of our top 25 pro bono firms for 2006 reported that more than half their lawyers had done at least 20 hours of pro bono work last year. (The lone exception is Howrey, No. 23.) Five years ago, 10 of the top 25 pro bono firms did not meet the 20-hour goal.

Interviews with the firms that have made big gains (as well as with a few that have slipped) also suggest that while internal pro bono attitudes can shift incrementally with relative ease, a revolution is much harder to foment. Markedly improving a pro bono ranking is at least as difficult, or at least as rare, as making a big jump in those other measures of success we use to determine our A-List: revenue, associate satisfaction and diversity.

Our five-year review also shows that for a pro bono revolution to stick, it had better begin at the top. That was true at Morgan Lewis, where lawyers, spurred by Milone, devoted an average of 67.1 hours each to pro bono matters in 2006, a 90 percent increase from 2002, when they averaged 35.4 hours. It is also true at DLA Piper, where a long-serving pro bono partner has the ear of co-chairmen Francis Burch Jr., and Lee Miller and has helped the firm nearly double its pro bono average, to 89 hours from 45 hours in pre-merger 2002; and at Hogan & Hartson, another firm that has spent the last five years chipping away at the competition.

“Leadership from the top of the firm is key,” says Patricia Brannan, who is in her third year as Hogan’s pro bono partner. “Lawyers here get feedback [on pro bono] all the time. It’s not just coming from me. It’s not like, ‘Oh, here comes Pat, get ready for the pro bono speech again.’” At Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, which has finished in the pro bono top 10 for each of the past five years, A. Stephen Hut Jr., vice-chairman of the firm’s litigation department, and John Regan, another senior litigation partner, lead the pro bono effort. The two were the first to speak before the assembled partners after their legacy firms merged in 2004, and both say that pro bono at their firm benefits from having high-ranking internal advocates. “Not that it happens often, but if someone wants to take on a case that might engender contention, it helps a lot to have someone engaged in the moneymaking and money-losing aspects of the firm to go to bat for them,” Hut says.

Amanda Smith, pro bono counsel at Morgan Lewis, also doesn’t have to go begging. She has weekly meetings with Milone, and with his support has instituted firmwide changes. She set up pro bono committees led by a partner in 11 of the 13 offices. A senior associate was also designated in each of the 11 offices to spend at least 10 percent of his or her time coordinating pro bono matters. Meanwhile, she keeps up the pressure: Morgan Lewis lawyers get a monthly newsletter that spotlights particular pro bono matters and lists the name of each lawyer who has met the 20-hour threshold set by the firm. “It’s more carrot than stick,” she says, but the message is clear. Pro bono is no longer a sign of professional virtue; it is an expectation of firm management.

Those firms that have seen a big change in their pro bono hours tend to have recently hired someone like Smith, a full-time director empowered by management to make sure the rank and file takes pro bono seriously. Scot Fishman at LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae also fits this description. A former LeBoeuf litigation associate, he was hired in July 2006 as the firm’s first full-time manager of corporate social responsibility. Fishman quickly established relationships with several big not-for-profits, including the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and brought dozens of cases to LeBoeuf lawyers. For the first two quarters of 2006, the firm averaged about 6,000 hours of pro bono; in the fourth, lawyers did more than 11,000 hours.

Hoping to rejoin the group of coordinators who have helped turn a firm’s pro bono practice around is Steven Schulman, former pro bono counsel at Latham & Watkins, which revitalized its pro bono program in the ’90s. At his new firm, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, Schulman has his work cut out for him. Akin Gump fell to 100th place in 2006, from 50th in 2005. Schulman says a lack of focus on pro bono, due to a long transition period when the firm was without a coordinator until his hire last August, is partly to blame. The firm also had a busy year with paying clients, he says (revenue per lawyer was up 7.7 percent in 2006, thanks in part to a $58.5 million contingency fee payout).

Like his counterparts elsewhere, Schulman says that top-down leadership is vital: “It’s important that they not just say the words, but that they take a personal commitment. Then I can say, ‘Hey, Bruce [McLean, the firm's chairman] is doing this, what is your excuse?’ He’s the busiest guy in the firm.” (McLean participates in a firmwide project providing legal counsel to immigrant women filing for permanent residency under the federal Violence Against Women Act.) Schulman guarantees that Akin Gump will move back up the charts for 2007.

Morgan Lewis; Hogan & Hartson; and LeBoeuf Lamb acknowledge that their recent ascension to the upper tier of pro bono contributors is due to big initiatives they have undertaken. At other firms pro bono successes are less revolution than evolution. Elizabeth Dewey has been pro bono partner at DLA Piper since 1999 (she started at predecessor firm Piper & Marbury). “Part of our firm’s culture and history has been the support from the very top for pro bono,” she says. DLA lawyers hear a lot about pro bono. Each is asked to devote 60 hours a year (20 hours is the minimum). They are asked about pro bono on their annual self-assessment. And associates receive credit toward their yearly billing targets for up to 100 hours of pro bono work, with exceptions allowed for cases that demand more time. (Hogan also caps hours that associates can be reimbursed for pro bono work at 100, but Morgan Lewis has left the door open — associates get credit for every hour they work on pro bono, with no ceiling.)

Akin Gump’s year-to-year decline was startling for its abruptness; other firms are on a slow fade. In 2002 an average of 88.7 hours per lawyer was enough to earn Cravath, Swaine & Moore the No. 13 slot on our pro bono charts. In 2006 Cravath lawyers averaged 75 hours. Percentage-wise, this is a modest decline, but with the rest of The Am Law 200 putting in more time, Cravath slid to 43rd place. Morrison & Foerster has also fallen behind. Lawyers at the firm averaged 76 hours of pro bono time in 2006. But that’s down from the 126 hours they averaged in 2002. Morrison Chairman Keith Wetmore explains the flux as part of the natural ebb and flow of legal work. In 2002, he notes, the firm’s lawyers devoted 75,000 hours to a class action in which San Francisco students sued the state of California, claiming substandard access to educational resources. “The good news is that all the firms are doing more,” Wetmore says. “We see ourselves as a trailblazer.”

Morrison and Cravath still finished 2006 in the top third of pro bono firms, and they also fared well when we compared them to other firms in the top 50 for revenue per lawyer. This was a useful exercise because it shows that there is no apparent conflict between financial success and pro bono work. Of the top 50 firms ranked by revenue per lawyer, 24 finished 2006 in the top 50 of our pro bono rankings, and 16 more finished in the top 100. (Nineteen Am Law 200 firms would not disclose their pro bono hours this year, including two in the top 50: Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, which is traditionally tight-lipped about its pro bono work, and Williams & Connolly.)

The firms in the bottom 100 of our rankings offer varying explanations for the results. Quinn Emanuel Urquhart Oliver & Hedges (revenue per lawyer rank 17, pro bono rank 141) notes that it does volunteer work that doesn’t count in our rankings, such as teaching reading to inner-city children. Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner (revenue per lawyer rank 26, pro bono rank 153) and Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft (revenue per lawyer rank 20, pro bono rank 135) both say that they are improving their pro bono efforts. At Fish & Richardson (revenue per lawyer rank 59, pro bono rank 182), managing partner Peter Devlin acknowledges that his firm lags behind its peers. “We excel in lots of areas, but pro bono is not one of them,” he says. The firm averaged five hours of pro bono per lawyer in 2006; put another way, it collected $168,000 in revenue for every hour it devoted to pro bono. In contrast, Wilmer, a perennial pro bono all-star, collected an average of $8,041 for every pro bono hour.

Lawrence Kolodney, whom Fish & Richardson hired as pro bono coordinator last fall, says he has a tough assignment. “In firms with an ingrained pro bono culture, every generation of lawyers follows in the footsteps of prior generations,” he says. In an attempt to turn the tide, Kolodney is trying some of the tactics of other successful firms: building partnerships with nonprofits, meeting with associates, setting goals.

These firms say they expect to do more in the future, but radical changes in firm culture are difficult, says Wilmer’s Hut. Firms at the top of the pro bono rankings have a “long-standing institutional commitment that tends to replenish itself,” he says. Given that, Fish & Richardson might be able to climb out of the pro bono basement, but the penthouse is probably out of reach — unless, perhaps, the leadership gets religion.

Milone hadn’t taken a case in nearly 10 years, when he became attorney of record for the Philadelphia boy who has epilepsy and a mental disability. He acknowledges that his role is mostly that of a supervisor — two associates do most of the legwork — but he has spent at least 100 hours working with them on the case during the last two years. That, he feels, is special. “I get a sense of accomplishment that I don’t get from managing a law firm,” he says. “You can take a life and literally change it.” And if it makes your firm look better in the eyes of competitors and potential recruits? So much the better.

The American Lawyer‘s annual report on the state of pro bono work in the nation’s largest law firms, The 2007 Pro Bono Survey ranks Am Law 200 firms based on the amount of pro bono work performed by each firm. Included are the average number of pro bono hours per lawyer and the percentage of lawyers with more than 20 hours of pro bono work. Related article:
Scoring the Firms