The legal marketplace has seen better days, but there’s a bright spot amid the gloom. The profession’s commitment to serving the poor and afflicted appears healthy despite the downturn.

Finding the numbers to prove it is a little tricky — the Pro Bono Institute at Georgetown University Law Center releases an annual report on large-firm pro bono, but the 2009 figures won’t be available until July. The trend as of the end of 2008 was positive, however: 134 large firms performed more than 4.8 million hours of free legal work, an increase of 13% compared to 2007. The number of individual attorneys involved increased, too: 19,111 partners and 33,920 associates — increases of 9% and 14%, respectively.

“Pro bono work allows law firms to both perform a public service and help uphold the tradition of equal access to justice,” institute director Esther Lardent said in releasing the data. “Law firms are also realizing that pro bono offers a tremendous opportunity to retain and retrain lawyers in practice areas that are suffering a decrease in billings and avoid laying off top-rated talent.”

Every year at this time, The National Law Journal bestows its Pro Bono Awards to lawyers doing exemplary work upholding the principle that justice shouldn’t be contingent on one’s ability to pay. We looked for firms that contributed substantial time and money to the cause and gave bonus points if the lawyers risked opprobrium by standing up for unpopular people and causes. We don’t pretend this is anything but our subjective judgment. We received nominations for dozens of firms that easily could qualify for inclusion and regret that we lack the space to write about more of them.

A number of trends stand out. First is that firms are using pro bono projects to keep associates sharpening their legal skills in the absence of paying work. According to Lardent, these associates will enjoy a marked advantage over peers stuck in deferred status. “My suspicion is that, for the firms that did it right, these kids are going to come back with more experience than their counterparts,” Lardent said in an interview.

Second is that pro bono is fairly well established as an institutional imperative. According to Lardent, in-house counsel have begun requiring firms bidding for business to disclose their pro bono practices. This reflects growing interest in in-house projects but also an understanding that pro bono has become a moral and professional litmus test. Corporations want to work with firms that share their values. “Pro bono is one area where that kind of stuff gets demonstrated,” Lardent said.

Another thing: Controversy is getting less scary. Whether you’re talking about capital cases, Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, representation or marriage equality, the profession understands that it has a responsibility to pitch in. “What pro bono really is about is reinforcing the integrity and trust on our legal system,” Lardent said. “And so even if you don’t support the particular position being taken, it’s a good thing that both sides have solid lawyers thrashing out the legal issues.”

Firms “understand that the firm can do a wide range of pro bono work and it’s good for the firm in a lot of ways. It’s good publicity and lets them show their stuff,” Lardent said. “When you’re looking at Kenneth Starr doing death penalty work and Ted Olson doing gay marriage, it’s fascinating that this is happening.”

— Michael Moline