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We’ve been worried about pro bono. Last year we caught the attention of The New York Timesand decent lawyers everywhere with a report about the steep drop in volunteer pro bono activity by The Am Law 100, the highest-grossing corporate law firms in the United States. The news this year is unsettling again. While total pro bono activity increased by almost 5 percent, the number of lawyers in The Am Law 100 grew by 9.4 percent. That means that on a per capita basis, pro bono work fell again. The average lawyer put in one fewer hour last year, down to 39. By comparison, in 1992, the average was 56 hours for the year. Pro bono is off by nearly one-third in nine years. Or, to vary our headline from last July, the pro bono commitment of the most successful corporate lawyers in the land equals, on a daily basis, 0.15 of a billable hour. This is important because since 1993, rule 6.1 of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct has urged lawyers to work 50 pro bono hours a year. Good works, however high-minded, don’t count automatically. Serving as a symphony trustee while sitting beside potential clients doesn’t qualify. In return for a monopoly on practicing law, the profession asks its members to spend a tiny fraction of their time helping those who can’t afford legal services. It’s a reminder that lawyering still contains nobility even if, as Russell Pearce argues, defining only some work as in the “public interest” permits other lawyers to behave like hired guns. [Russell Pearce's commentary piece will appear later this month.] What explains the continued decline? Last year was certainly grueling for law firm managers. Caught with both a full galley of $165,000-a-year junior associates and clients who expected instant gratification, some firms bridled at generating new unbillable work. But of the 24 Am Law 100 firms that averaged more than 50 hours of pro bono by their U.S.-based lawyers, 19 increased their profits per partner and one, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, held steady at a remarkable $1.6 million. Eleven increased their pro bono commitments. Of the three firms that joined this elite group — Dorsey & Whitney, Latham & Watkins, and Vinson & Elkins — two also achieved substantial profit gains. Latham took a tiny dip, but to a still-enviable $990,000 per partner. There isn’t a causal relationship between more pro bono and more profits. But our report shows that a drop in profits is not clearly related to an increase in pro bono work. Of the 15 firms whose profits suffered last year, eight also reduced their pro bono hours, and the mighty Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz chose once again not to disclose what, if any, pro bono hours they spent. Two firms, Latham (up 64 percent) and Goodwin Procter (up 40 percent), deserve praise for sharply increasing their commitments. Overall, 52 firms increased their pro bono hours but most still fell short of the Model Rules standard. Lagging in the pro bono tables is not a sign of firm health. Last year, Graham & James finished last before it imploded. Littler Mendelson, second from the bottom, slipped off The Am Law 100 list. And this year, Brown & Wood became part of Sidley & Austin. That merger weds Sidley’s renowned pro bono tradition to Brown’s meager one. Charles Douglas, the managing partner of the new entity, doesn’t think a culture clash will follow. To him, it’s more a matter of opportunities. Sidley’s litigation department generates tens of thousands of pro bono hours each year, while Brown’s lawyers have tended to specialize in transactional work. “There just aren’t a lot of pro bono securitizations,” Douglas says. True, but the poor need dealmaking lawyers, too. Brown’s lawyers did increase their pro bono hours before the merger, but they still lag far behind their new partners. Four firms joined The Am Law 100 this year. Two of them, alas, placed dead last in reported pro bono activity. Both Blank Rome Comisky & McCauley and Duane, Morris & Heckscher have enjoyed spirited growth. But their pro bono numbers haven’t kept pace: Blank Rome’s 368 lawyers performed 337 pro hono hours, and Duane Morris’ 364 logged 1,434. They’ve been busy serving clients, their chairmen say. And they’ve recorded their hours poorly. Says Blank Rome’s David Girard-diCarl “We’re going to try harder.” Both firms can start with their Web sites. Searches for “pro bono” turn up more than a dozen hits each. Click on them, though, and most respond with error messages. Their pages, like too many of their lawyers, aren’t available to help. Related Chart: Pro Bon The Dismal Decline Continues

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