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The good news for law firms last year was that they were busier than ever. That’s also the bad news for pro bono. With booming business sending billable hours to dizzying new heights, partners and associates on average are finding less and less time to do voluntary work in the public interest. In addition, several large firms reacted to soaring associate salaries earlier this year by retooling their policies in order to reduce or eliminate the number of pro bono hours that count toward billable goals. In the most recent rankings from The American Lawyer, Washington, D.C. heavyweights — including Covington & Burling, Arnold & Porter, and Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering — reported that their lawyers spent fewer hours on pro bono last year than in previous years, while the firms still retained their positions as three of the top five pro bono providers in the nation. But not every firm let their numbers slip. Despite an overall drop in hours among top firms, some firms actually increased their pro bono support — and not necessarily because they were more committed to doing pro bono, explains Esther Lardent of the Washington, D.C.-based Pro Bono Institute. Firms around the nation have drawn on previously overlooked sources of support to keep their pro bono programs from flagging. Just like in the paying world, firms are discovering they have to change the way they think about pro bono if they want to stay competitive. “What this takes is unceasing creativity,” she says. “If pro bono is going to be vital and successful, it has to change, too.” One way that firms have adapted is by tapping transactional attorneys. Corporate lawyers at firms and in-house have capitalized on opportunities to handle transactions and negotiations for local nonprofit organizations. Such matters consume fewer hours to resolve than a discrimination class action, for example, and lawyers who prefer transactional work say it can be just as valuable to the community as high-profile cases decided in the courtroom. “By focusing on transactional work, one of the things we’re seeing is that different lawyers in the firm are getting interested,” says Lardent. Their assistance, she says, gives the pro bono program “an infusion of new blood that’s really healthy.” The Washington, D.C. Bar is doing its part for firms struggling to adopt a policy that’s generous and yet won’t dig into shareholder profits. In September, the bar launched the Pro Bono Initiative Working Group, with President John Nields Jr. at the helm, to address these and other concerns. The committee, composed of many of the city’s best known pro bono advocates, including Eldon “Took” Crowell of Crowell & Moring and Robert Weiner of Arnold & Porter, is expected to release its findings in the spring. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs has also taken an advocacy role. In October, the Washington, D.C.-based civil rights group circulated a pledge to lawyers in the public and private sectors, calling on them to boost their commitment to performing legal aid work and to encourage others to do the same. It’s difficult to predict what effect either campaign will have in the long run, especially since firms have yet to calculate their final year-end profit and pro bono numbers. Still, there are reasons to be hopeful. At least one firm that stopped allowing lawyers to count pro bono hours toward billable goals earlier this year is now retreating to its old ways. Last month, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld announced it would again count all pro bono hours toward minimum billable requirements. The firm says it switched back because profits for the year were above expectations. In February, the Pro Bono Institute will host its annual seminar — “Pro Bono at Light Speed: Where Law Firms, Corporate In-House Counsel, and Pro Bono Intersect” — just as firms take stock in what is and what isn’t working in their pro bono programs. More than 225 representatives from firms and other organizations around the nation are expected to attend the conference, which will feature such programs as “Pro Bono Tapas: How to Effectively Use Small Amounts of Available Time,” and “Salary Wars and Pro Bono: Strategies for Successful Coexistence.” Lardent predicts it will be the Institute’s largest annual meeting ever.

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