Is free legal work always pro bono? May a firm fairly include in its pro bono hours exemplary work for which it is paid? These are questions The American Lawyer has been discussing more than usual this year. As we sifted through pro bono data from participating Am Law 200 firms, we confronted a handful of examples that seemed to inhabit a gray zone — neither the snowy white of do-gooder work nor the basic black of for-profit endeavors.

The most striking example involves Chicago’s Winston & Strawn. This year the law firm initially reported a spike in pro bono time, thanks to the many hours the firm spent in its volunteer defense of former Illinois Gov. George Ryan against 18 fraud and racketeering charges brought by the federal government. Ryan has special ties to the firm. Former Illinois Gov. James Thompson Jr. is Winston’s chairman; Ryan was his lieutenant governor. After Ryan commuted the sentences of every inmate on Illinois death row, Winston defended his decision in state courts. This time, Winston offered a 20-lawyer team, headed by star litigator Dan Webb. After a six-month trial in federal court, a jury convicted Ryan; now Winston is handling his appeal.