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Guns don’t kill lawyers; billable hours do. That’s why, when it comes to pro bono, associates are dodging the bullet. “It’s pro bono or go home-o,” says one New York associate. Given the opportunity to take on a pro bono matter, he prefers, like Bartleby, not to. When you’re billing 2,500 hours a year, it’s hard to squeeze in a few more to reseed the Amazon rainforest. “The firm makes it a policy to encourage pro bono,” says another associate at San Francisco’s Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, “but as a practical matter, the hours make it almost impossible. I’d like to help out, but my family needs me.” It is the fattest of times, the richest of times, and associates are bellyaching. A steady diet of lavish cases has plumped their plates like a Christmas goose — and partners are sharpening the carving knives. In the wake of the largest salary and bonus increases in law firm history, associates are paying for it — as we knew they would — in pounds of flesh. “Increased salaries have led to increased pressure to bill hours,” affirms a young associate. One of the first casualties has been pro bono. “If you’re working harder,” admits Anthony Perez Cassino, assistant director of public service at New York’s Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, “it’s harder to do pro bono.” Still, Cassino believes, associates would like to take on more pro bono matters. “There’s been a change in the culture,” he says, pointing to the New York State Bar Association’s creation of the President’s Committee on Access to Justice as an example of pro bono initiatives. “Associates are more aware of their obligation.” Yet, since 1992, according to The American Lawyer‘s latest survey, pro bono hours have plunged from about 56 hours per lawyer to 36 hours. Associates may have a hankering, but like a finicky lover, they’re having trouble committing. They get home late; they have a headache; they’re not in the mood. And no one makes an aspirin big enough. Size does matter. When you’re litigating the case that ate Cincinnati, it’s hard to protect nonunionized migrant farm workers from Chechnyan rebels. You’ve got to sleep! Some associates would rather write a check to the United Way than bill time for pro bono, admits one big-firm associate. Indeed, some states, like Florida, have imposed a pro bono requirement but allowed lawyers to buy their way out of it — a solution that only the economics faculty at the University of Chicago could love. Associates have always suffered under the yoke of cruel masters. But for the first time, law firms are yanking it tighter by changing the way they account for pro bono hours. In the good old days, when five figures was a perfectly acceptable salary west of the Hudson River, most firms did not have a formal minimum billable requirement and did not base bonuses on the numbers. Now, firms have instituted minimums and tied bonuses to hours. Worse, they’ve eliminated or reduced the value that pro bono hours count toward the total. They’ve sent a clear signal — as if one were needed — that pro bono is a sidelight to the main show: making money 24-7. A former associate at San Francisco’s Pillsbury Madison & Sutro complains that the firm changed its policy with the recent salary increases and now no longer credits associates (beyond the first year) for pro bono hours. It still expects associates to bill 1,950 hours a year, however, and will not guarantee a bonus to anyone who fails to make certain hourly minimums. “It’s like I was doing the work, and Pillsbury was getting the credit, even though they didn’t give me any credit,” she grumbles. At Miami’s Greenberg Traurig, the firm no longer counts pro bono hours in the 1,900-hour minimum yearly requirement. Washington, D.C.’s Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld recently limited to 100 the number of pro bono hours that can be counted toward the firm’s 2,100-hour base required to be eligible for a bonus (although certain firm-initiated pro bono matters are exempted). Fulbright & Jaworski has limited the number of hours of pro bono that can be counted in the firm’s new bonus structure. They’re mad as hell, and they’re not going to pay for it anymore. But as firms pump up the hourly minimums and let the gas out of pro bono credits, we should ask ourselves whether associates really have cause to gripe. The limits placed on pro bono will affect few of them, if any, because they weren’t billing the time to pro bono in the first place. Consider that only two Am Law 100 firms cracked 100 pro bono hours per lawyer — and only by five hours (Covington & Burling and Jenner & Block). So although firms may be sending the wrong message in limiting credit for pro bono hours, at least (for the most part) they’re counting. It’s the associates who aren’t. It’s easy to criticize law firms — I know, I do it for a living. But what about criticizing associates? Instead of finding the time, they’re shuffling it, avoiding their obligations like a piece of bad cheese. Volunteering has always meant sacrificing, forgoing part of the weekend to ladle soup at a homeless shelter. Taking on an indigent’s appeal for asylum is no different. It requires time that might otherwise be spent teaching your dog to retrieve Fritos without crunching. Why do lawyers feel so special, so aggrieved? Is it because the bar looks at them and expects something in return for those six-figure salaries? Is it because, like most of us, they can’t imagine finding another minute and resent the very public admonition that they should? Like true love, pro bono hurts. But that shouldn’t preclude you from saying you’re sorry. David Bentley, an associate at Dewey Ballantine’s D.C. office, billed about 300 hours last year taking on the federal government on behalf of unemployed assembly-line workers in a NAFTA dispute, yet still managed to bill more than 2,000 “regular” hours. “I can’t say my hours were manageable,” says Kara Gross, a former Debevoise & Plimpton associate who was handling three active pro bono matters at the time she left, “but I managed to do it.” Goody-two-shoes? Maybe. But these two, among others, who got nothing but goodwill (and not even amphetamines) for their pro bono efforts, prove that even in an overbilled world, pro bono is not impossible. Pro bono requires sweat and tears (and even a little blood), perhaps more than ever before. Marching into a partner’s office to announce that you intend to fight to protect Greenland’s right to make ice and Iceland’s right to stay green may not win you the associate-of-the-year award. It may not even make sense. Complaining about the workload is a time-honored tradition, and so much easier than taking on more work. Consider, however, that associates have never had more ability to effect change at their firms than they do today. Already, Pillsbury’s managing partner, Marina Park, admits that the new pro bono policy has made associates unhappy, and says that the firm plans to restore pro bono credit next year. Other firms will find themselves hard-pressed to deny bonuses to an associate who has missed her targets because she’s billed too much pro bono. (Imagine the headlines: “Do-Gooder Done Bad by Penny-Pinching Partners.”) The very forces that are conspiring to make pro bono difficult — a booming market, a ferocious workload — are the exact same forces that actually make it easier. Associates have had the power all along; like Dorothy, they just didn’t know it. So the next time that e-mail with “asylum” in the subject line pops up on your computer screen, don’t ignore it. It may be a call for help, not a description of your firm. Cameron Stracher is the author of “Double Billing: A Young Lawyer’s Tale of Greed, Sex, Lies, and the Pursuit of a Swivel Chair.” He practices media law in New York City. He can be reached at [email protected]

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