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For many of the nation’s major law firms, 2000 was a good year. To accommodate an unprecedented flow of business, firms opened new domestic offices, expanded their reach globally and hired new attorneys and laterals at a frantic pace. This economic good news stood in sharp contrast to reports of sharply declining levels of participation in pro bono work. The current status of pro bono at large firms, however, is both more complex and more positive than has been reported. Although media coverage has focused on a supposed precipitous drop in pro bono hours at major law firms, the data received by the Pro Bono Institute, as well as reports on law firm pro bono activity levels issued by other organizations that track pro bono time (such as New York’s Volunteers of Legal Services program), paint a different picture. Although pro bono hours at some large law firms have decreased, others, including some of the most prosperous law firms in the nation, have seen their pro bono time increase dramatically. It appears that many — perhaps most — large law firms have held their own on pro bono during the past year. While these data are substantially more hopeful than those reported in the legal press, the dangers for pro bono practice posed by the pressures of large-firm practice and economics cannot be understated. Law firms today — adapting to changing client expectations, facing increased staffing and technology costs, and coping with greater time pressures — could easily, if they are not attentive, lose or compromise their commitment to pro bono. SOMETHING IN COMMON An analysis by the Pro Bono Institute of those law firms that have enhanced their pro bono culture and performance, while adapting successfully to new economic realities, reveals several common themes: � Consistent, unambiguous top-down support for pro bono. For example, law firms that carefully and clearly signaled their continuing commitment to pro bono as they addressed associate-salary and billable-hour target issues saw a concomitant increase in pro bono work by their lawyers during the past year. Latham & Watkins, for example, saw a one-third increase in pro bono time in 2000. Not surprising, firms that failed to specifically address the issue of pro bono or, even more troubling, actually cut back on their commitment to pro bono as they increased compensation, found that their pro bono performance dropped substantially (as did associate morale). � Full parity for time spent on pro bono matters. In an era in which lawyers at large law firms are working far longer hours and compensation is more directly tied to those hours, law firms that pledged to treat pro bono hours exactly the same as hours billed to paying clients — and whose deeds matched their words — were able to maintain or increase their pro bono time. � Budgeting for pro bono/pro bono targets. Law firms that established a pro bono budget — typically the 3 percent or 5 percent of total billable hours or revenues cited by the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge — and worked during the year to meet that budget matched their economic success with pro bono success during the past year. � Rethinking the firm’s pro bono program. When every aspect of law firm practice and management is changing so rapidly, pro bono cannot remain static. Law firms with a successful pro bono practice constantly reinvent their firm’s program with such innovations as rotation/externships, firm-sponsored fellowships, greater opportunities for firm corporate and business lawyers, joint ventures with the legal departments of corporate clients and creative tools to recognize and reward pro bono achievements. These and many other innovations characterize law firm pro bono success stories. THE GREATER GOOD The reality is that law firms can — and many do — not only maintain their commitment to pro bono in good times but also enhance their pro bono efforts. Lawyers bear a special professional obligation to ensure that equal access to justice becomes a reality. Lawyers at major law firms — and particularly the leaders of those firms — have an even greater responsibility to promote access to, and support for, pro bono service. While the legal economy has experienced extraordinary growth during the past decade, virtually all of that growth has been in legal services provided to corporations and to the very wealthiest citizens. Resources available for personal legal services to the poorest Americans and those of modest means have declined precipitously. The revenues now generated by law firms are at levels unimaginable 10 and 20 years ago. It should be equally unimaginable that, in the midst of this prosperity, lawyers would even consider lessening their commitment to help those unable to afford desperately needed legal help. The legal profession has been granted enormous power, authority and wealth — and the enviable ability to regulate itself. The public, however, will not long tolerate lawyers wielding that power if lawyers retreat from the obligation to service that accompanies its authority. Public trust and confidence in the legal profession and the legal system are at an all-time low. If an already suspicious public sees lawyers — particularly the most prosperous lawyers — turning their backs on the needy at a time when lawyers are earning more than ever — the authority and autonomy granted to lawyers may well be lost. IT’S GOOD FOR BUSINESS A lessened commitment to pro bono service not only threatens the legal profession as a whole; it is bad business for large law firms. Pro bono makes particularly good business sense for major law firms. To remain competitive, most large firms in major legal markets substantially increased starting associate salaries last year. With starting salaries at many large firms essentially the same, compensation is, for the most part, no longer a factor in the decision by young lawyers to accept a particular law firm’s offer of employment. How can law firms differentiate themselves from their competitors? The answers are clear: interesting work; strong training, mentoring and professional development opportunities; quality of life; and a sense that the lawyer will be seen and valued as an individual. Pro bono is an excellent vehicle for providing what young lawyers want. A strong commitment to pro bono signals the firm’s commitment to quality, to community and to the individuals it employs. Pro bono is an important factor in reducing attrition and the millions of dollars expended by firms every year in simply replacing scarce talent. It is the best marketing and public-relations tool that law firms possess. And, with the dramatic increase in interest in pro bono among corporate law departments, pro bono offers a fresh vehicle to attract the attention of potential clients and to reframe relationships with existing clients. This is a time of great ferment and change in the legal profession — and, particularly, among major law firms. Lawyers must decide what they want their firms to become. In making that decision, a law firm’s commitment to pro bono, as a key element of the culture and fabric of the firm, cannot be lost. Bill McBride is managing partner in the Tampa, Fla., office of Holland & Knight. He is also chair of the advisory committee of the Law Firm Pro Bono Project, a program of the Pro Bono Institute at Georgetown University Law Center, in cooperation with the American Bar Association.

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