Dionne C. Rainey and Daniel C. Garner, partners in the Dallas office of Hunton & Williams, were on a mission last year to get the firm’s Texas lawyers more involved in pro bono service.
Co-chairs of the 20-member pro bono committee for the firm’s Austin, Dallas and Houston offices, the duo and their committee met monthly via telephone to review the pro bono efforts of their colleagues. “At every meeting we would go over the list of who had pro bono hours,” Rainey says. “If people had more than 50 hours, we didn’t call them — they were already doing their part. If someone had zero or less than 10 [hours], we would ask, ‘Who on the committee knows so and so?’ ” Then specific committee members would visit with the colleagues lacking pro bono hours and try to match a pro bono need with those colleagues’ interests.
The personal touch paid off. During 2008 the firm achieved an average of 51 hours of pro bono work for each of its Texas lawyers — one of five firms with large Texas operations that exceeded the recommendation from the State Bar of Texas and the American Bar Association that lawyers donate 50 pro bono hours annually.
Texas Lawyer invited the 26 largest firms in Texas to provide pro bono information. Twenty-five of the firms — as listed on “The Texas 100″ poster published in Texas Lawyer on April 27 — provided their Texas offices’ pro bono information for 2008 and 2007. Fort Worth-based Kelly Hart & Hallman provided information for 2008, but not for 2007, so it is not included on the chart. [ See the chart "Pro Bono Hours at Texas' Largest Firms" ]
Overall, large firms in Texas beefed up their pro bono activities during 2008 compared to 2007. Of the 25 reporting firms, 16 increased the pro bono hours donated during 2008, eight decreased their total hours and one firm’s pro bono hours remained about the same.
The 2008 average per lawyer is determined by dividing the total pro bono hours donated by each firm’s Texas lawyers during 2008 by the number of lawyers in the firm’s Texas offices on Aug. 31, 2008.
During 2008, Texas’ largest firms donated 185,708 hours to pro bono service, nearly 5 percent more than the 177,117 hours donated by the same firms the previous year.
In addition to Richmond, Va.-based Hunton & Williams, Texas lawyers at Dallas-based Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld worked 18,360 pro bono hours for an average of 77 hours per attorney. Houston-based Fulbright & Jaworski’s Texas lawyers donated 34,508 hours during 2008, for an average of 61 hours per lawyer. In 2008, lawyers in the Texas offices of Washington, D.C.-based Patton Boggs added up 6,180 hours or 65 hours per lawyer and the Texas offices of New York City-based Weil, Gotshal & Manges reported donating 10,509 hours for an average of 85 hours per lawyer.
The two firms new to the 50-hour-per-lawyer group, Hunton & Williams and Akin Gump, each placed special emphasis on increasing pro bono hours in 2008, but with different strategies. At Hunton & Williams, the Texas pro bono committee each month reviewed the list of lawyers who had not yet participated in pro bono work and then tried to find a way to match those lawyers with a pro bono need. Akin Gump’s goal was to work enough pro bono hours firmwide to reach an average level exceeding 60 hours per lawyer.
The 51 average hours donated by Hunton’s Texas lawyers in 2008 is an 82.3 percent increase over the 28 average hours donated by its lawyers the previous year. This is the largest percentage increase of average pro bono hours among the state’s largest firms.
“The concept is to get every lawyer in every office to spend at least some of their time each year for a pro bono client,” says Patrick E. Mitchell, managing partner of the firm’s Dallas office. “That level of participation is the benchmark. . . . The bottom line is what we are trying to do in the Dallas and Texas offices, is match the commitment to pro bono service that exists throughout the firm.”
As co-chair of the firm’s Texas pro bono committee, Garner says he develops contacts with organizations such as The Family Place, a Dallas nonprofit that helps victims of family violence, to develop pro bono opportunities for the firm’s lawyers.
“It’s much like developing a regular commercial paying client. It was fun,” he says. “When you can go to somebody and say we want to do your legal work and we don’t want to charge you for it, those were fun meetings.”
During monthly pro bono committee meetings, members reviewed an updated list of the number of pro bono hours donated by each lawyer. “If somebody was really lagging in hours, and less interested in pro bono, sometimes management would talk to them and ask them what would make them interested in doing pro bono,” Rainey says.
She says the committee members always found a pro bono activity that could meet a lawyer’s preferences. “It was really just a lot of networking.”
Rainey, also a member of the firm’s employment committee, says pro bono often comes up when she is recruiting at law schools. “I’m inevitably asked by every student, ‘What is your pro bono program? Do you get credit for it?’ ” she says.
Hunton associates receive up to 50 hours of billable-hour credit for pro bono work, but Rainey declines to define the firm’s billable-hour requirements.
Mark Melton, a first-year Hunton associate in Dallas, says pro bono work is an attractive component of his job. As a Hunton summer associate in 2007, Melton says he worked with firm lawyers at one of the clinics sponsored by the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program interviewing potential DVAP clients.
After joining the firm full time in the fall of 2008, Melton took on a pro bono family custody case referred by Dallas Baptist Ministries. Melton estimates that over six to eight months, he spent 120 hours helping a Peruvian immigrant obtain visitation rights and the eventual joint custody of his child. “This poor guy had multiple problems,” Melton says. “His immigration status was not confirmed, he was a day laborer and had no money to pay a lawyer.”
Melton says he appreciates receiving billable-hour credit for his pro bono work. “As a law student you get the perception that big national law firms really only care about the bottom line,” he says. “It was refreshing to me to hear that wasn’t the case.”
The pro bono committee’s goal was to have every Texas lawyer donate some pro bono service during the fiscal year that ended on March 31, and as the year-end approached, the committee scrutinized its list of folks with no pro bono hours and found opportunities for them.
The firm announced in June that all of the full-time lawyers in its Texas offices had contributed pro bono hours during the fiscal year ending March 31.
What is the firm’s new goal? “This year our focus is getting as many of our lawyers in each office to devote 20 hours of their practice in a given year to pro bono,” Mitchell says. In a difficult economy, Mitchell says there is greater demand for pro bono services. “We don’t think that asking our lawyers to commit to contribute an average of less than two hours a month on pro bono activities will over-extend even our busiest lawyers,” he says.
The Akin Way
Akin Gump wants its lawyers to work enough pro bono hours so the firm can attain an average of at least 60 hours per lawyer — a public commitment the firm has as a member of the Law Firm Pro Bono Project of the Pro Bono Institute in Washington, D.C. In August 2006, the firm hired Steven H. Schulman in D.C. as firmwide pro bono partner, says Eric J. Klein, counsel at the firm’s Dallas office and a member of the firm’s Dallas pro bono committee. “Steve has been the driving force behind the success we’ve had,” says Klein.
The increase in the firm’s donated pro bono hours over the past two years has been dramatic. In 2006, the firm’s Texas operations donated an average of 29 hours per lawyer. In 2007, that number increased 66.5 percent to 49 hours per lawyer. Then last year, the firm averaged 77 pro bono hours per Texas lawyer, a 58.9 percent jump from the hours donated in 2007.
Schulman says he spends his time handling pro bono cases, cultivating relationships with pro bono and nonprofit organizations, and helping other Akin Gump lawyers develop pro bono opportunities for themselves and their colleagues.
The firm established a pro bono committee in each office, comprised of partners and associates from various practice areas, Schulman says. The local committee members are responsible for helping the firm’s lawyers find pro bono matters and for establishing relationships with legal services organizations, Schulman says. He says Akin Gump’s Texas offices work with organizations such as the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project in Harlingen, the Houston Volunteer Lawyers Project, Volunteer Legal Services of Central Texas in Austin, the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program and the San Antonio Bar Association Community Justice Program.
He says the firm doesn’t mandate that its lawyers do pro bono work, but lawyers volunteer if you give them the “right opportunity.”
Schulman says he receives a pro bono report each month that shows pro bono hours donated by offices, practice sections and individuals. Schulman doesn’t look at individual hours, but instead considers how the firm’s sections are doing. If there looks like a practice area might have time for more pro bono work — perhaps because there is less paying business at the time, as there was in 2008 with transactional work — Schulman says he will contact a section head or member of an office pro bono committee to offer his assistance in finding local pro bono work for the lawyers.
The firm’s Texas lawyers have donated more pro bono hours during the first six months of 2009 than they did during the same period last year, he says. If the offices maintain their current levels of pro bono activity, the Austin office will have an average of 103 hours per lawyer by year end, Dallas will have 94, Houston will have 69 and San Antonio will have 62 hours per lawyer, he says.
The firm encourages lawyers with practices that may be slower this year, such as corporate, to stay busy — whether working for a billable client or a pro bono client, he says. “We should still be working hard,” Schulman says. “There are plenty of people out there who need help, that’s for sure.”
For instance, through a conversation two years ago with Sandy Kress, a public law partner in Akin Gump’s Austin office, Schulman says he learned about an opportunity at the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), a chain of charter public schools based in Houston. The two lawyers approached KIPP officials to offer pro bono services. Since then, Akin lawyers have donated about $2 million in legal services to KIPP schools handling a variety of matters including real estate work, labor and employment, and contracts, he says.
The firm does not set a billable-hour requirement for associates, but Schulman says pro bono hours are considered as important as billable hours when the firm looks at productivity. The firm doesn’t require each lawyer to handle 60 pro bono hours, but in 2006, firm chairman R. Bruce McLean asked the firm’s lawyers to make a serious effort toward the 60-hours-per-lawyer-commitment the firm has with the Pro Bono Institute. “When Bruce reaffirmed that commitment a couple of years ago, that carried a lot of weight,” Schulman says. “It gave people a real target in a sense.”
Schulman says the firm’s commitment to pro bono helps recruiting new hires. “It helps for people to know that the firm is committed to more than making money,” he says. Even in this economy, recruits are interested in a firm’s pro bono policies, he says. “We are still, with every firm, in a war for talent,” he says. “The best recruits still have options. People who have choices will choose a place that fits their values.”
And, he notes, it can be good work experience for young lawyers. “Sometimes in a big corporate matter or big litigation, it is hard for an associate to see the whole picture,” he says. “They tend to become very reactive. It’s hard to see five steps ahead because it’s not their job as associates. With pro bono, they can develop those skills.”