“If the American economy gets a cold, poor people get pneumonia.”

The observation is from Esther Lardent, president of the Pro Bono Institute. Her point was that, for all the pain this dreadful economy has inflicted on the legal profession, things are much worse for society’s downtrodden. The profession seems to recognize that, and also its responsibility to help out with legal services for those who can’t afford to pay. The figures for 2010 aren’t available yet, but according to NLJ affiliate The American Lawyer, the country’s 200 largest firms logged 5.7 million hours in pro bono work in 2009, a 2% increase compared to the year before. Average pro bono hours per attorney were flat, and the number of lawyers with 20 hours or more in pro bono work dipped by 1%, to 47.5%. Pro bono, then, is at least “holding its own,” as Lardent put it. “It’s hokey but true that lawyers are recognizing that they are very lucky in the scheme of things and they want to use their skills to help people who are struggling in this economy.”

We recognize that effort in this edition of the NLJ with our annual Pro Bono Awards. From among scores of truly inspirational projects, we have selected six firms that best reflect the pro bono tradition. — Michael Moline

When disaster struck, the lawyers rushed in
Three law firms led the profession’s response to the devastating earthquake in Haiti.

Justice for contract workers in America’s wars
Cohen Milstein takes up the cause of Nepalese workers exploited by military contractors.
 NLJ VIDEO: Cohen Milstein’s Agnieszka Fryszman discusses her Nepalese clients’ plight.

When the law works against you, change it
Robins Kaplan got state law changed to benefit victims of the Minnesota bridge collapse.

Slowing down, but not stopping, death’s machinery
A Steptoe & Johnson LLP attorney became emotionally attached to his death-row client.