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In law school, George Parker envisioned himself doing a satisfying mix of pro bono projects and billable mergers and acquisitions work. But the Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati corporate associate doesn’t litigate, and most of the pro bono projects that come to firms typically demand courtroom expertise. After two years with Palo Alto, Calif.’s Wilson Sonsini, Parker finally got a chance to perform community service as a lawyer. In December, he shepherded the merger of two non-profit corporations that provide services to the homeless. Since then, he has been a regular pro bono biller, doing work for other community-based agencies. During the economic boom of the late 1990s, lawyers at technology-focused firms such as Wilson Sonsini, San Francisco’s Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison and Palo Alto-based Cooley Godward were too busy to do much pro bono work. Now that the economy has cooled and corporate lawyers have more time on their hands, they are looking for opportunities to do more pro bono projects. The firms aren’t just finding ways to keep busy. Once reviled for their lack of pro bono commitment, they are taking the opportunity to polish their image. “Firms like Wilson have come forward like gangbusters,” said Tanya Neiman, director of the Bar Association of San Francisco’s Volunteer Legal Services Program. “They are very much pulling their load in helping people all over the region.” The problem is finding pro bono work, long the purview of litigators, for corporate lawyers. The key is reaching nonprofit corporations or small businesses in economically depressed neighborhoods to let them know lawyers are in line to help, said Norman Blears, a securities litigator at San Francisco’s Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe. He serves on the board of an organization in Silicon Valley trying to do just that. “The challenge is clearly finding enough projects,” Blears said. “There is just not a system to connect non-litigation pro bono needs of the community with the lawyers who have the capacity and interest to do the work.” Groups like the Community Organizations Representation Project, which is part of the Volunteer Legal Services Program, and Legal Services for Entrepreneurs, both in San Francisco, are also working more closely with law firms to link corporate lawyers with projects. Pierre Stroud, CORP’s project manager, said he’s just run out of projects. He’s planning an outreach effort to find more nonprofits or small businesses that can use the hundreds of volunteer attorneys the group has to choose from. “There are a lot of volunteer resources at this moment untapped,” Stroud said. “There are a lot of nonprofits that provide really important services, and are increasingly providing services the government used to provide, and they could really benefit from having experienced attorneys look at the legal aspects of their operations.” The outreach efforts are paying off. Silicon Valley tech firms have significantly increased their hours. Since 1998, Wilson Sonsini has swelled its total pro bono hours by 134 percent, which is the greatest increase among the Bay Area’s largest law firms. That number is based on figures firms provide for the annual list of top-grossing firms published by The American Lawyer. Wilson Sonsini logged 14,521 pro bono hours in 2001, up from 6,211 hours in 1998. Cooley Godward increased pro bono hours by 113 percent in the same time, swelling total hours to 27,000 in 2001 from 12,689 in 1998. San Francisco-based Morrison & Foerster, which traditionally devotes the greatest number of hours to pro bono among Bay Area firms, increased its total by 63 percent. The firm booked 72,985 hours in 2001, up from 44,705 hours in 1998. Cooley and MoFo, however, do not break out the hours billed by litigators versus corporate lawyers. At Wilson Sonsini, the firm has increased the number of hours its lawyers devote to pro bono primarily by tapping its ranks of corporate lawyers. Three years ago, corporate lawyers represented one third of the total hours Wilson recorded for pro bono work while last year, that proportion had doubled. Of counsel Mark Parnes splits his time between assisting Wilson’s general counsel and managing the firm’s pro bono program. In 1997, after 15 years with the firm, Parnes left Wilson for an 18-month soul-searching hiatus. When he suggested a return, the firm created a position for him as pro bono counsel. Parnes said his initial goal was to find meaningful projects for the firm’s growing ranks of corporate lawyers. He believed the increase in hours would happen naturally. “We all had a sense that we wanted to get more corporate lawyers involved,” Parnes said. At Cooley, partner Toni Pryor Wise attended a conference several years ago and discovered many East Coast firms had pro bono coordinators. She decided Cooley should too and started devising a plan that came into being this summer. On June 1, the firm formally instituted a pro bono practice group with partners in each of the firm’s offices charged with client intake, assigning lawyers and supervising them, said Wise, who heads the firm’s pro bono committee. “[Pro bono] has grown from a volunteer program to something that we think deserves more attention and more support.” Bay Area firms are becoming more organized about finding projects, and tracking the hours is a simple evolution, Wise said. And initiatives by local and national bar associations to encourage pro bono have given firms tangible goals, she said. But the slowdown in corporate work in Silicon Valley has definitely played a role in Cooley’s revamped pro bono program, Wise said. “When the economy shifted, we had a lot of younger lawyers that had this innate desire to do pro bono and suddenly had a lot less work,” Wise said. “It’s been a useful force in re-energizing the program.”

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