There is no shortage of people in Texas who need legal advice but cannot afford it. Attorneys with the state’s largest firms helped relieve some of that need in 2010 by donating 178,867 hours to pro bono matters.
“Most of our pro bono work is on very routine cases, family law, consumer claims, landlord-tenant disputes,” says James “Jody” Scheske, partner in charge of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld’s Austin office and a member of the firm’s pro bono committee. “Those cases don’t generate any publicity, but that’s where the greatest need is right now in our society.”
The State Bar of Texas and the American Bar Association recommend that attorneys donate 50 hours each year to pro bono activities. Twenty-two of the largest firms in Texas provided Texas Lawyer their pro bono statistics for 2010. The 22 firms had an average full-time equivalent (FTE) Texas attorney count of 5,457 in 2010 and donated an average of 33 pro bono hours per attorney.
Akin Gump is one of the four firms among the state’s largest that exceeded the annual hourly pro bono goals set by the State Bar and ABA. The other three firms are Houston-based Fulbright & Jaworski; Richmond, Va.-based Hunton & Williams; and New York City-based Weil, Gotshal & Manges.
The numbers cannot be compared to numbers reported in Texas Lawyer ‘s 2009 pro bono report, published June 7, 2010, because those were calculated using Aug. 31, 2009, attorney counts.
Akin Gump’s Texas attorneys donated an average of 79 hours each to pro bono matters last year.
“We provide billable-hour credit to encourage folks to donate their time,” Scheske says. “I don’t know if that’s a motivator or not, but we put our money where our mouth is.”
Attorneys earn billable-hour credit for all pro bono hours, he says. In addition to the firmwide committee, each office has a pro bono committee consisting of partners and associates who help match their colleagues with pro bono work, he says.
Attorneys in the Texas offices of Fulbright & Jaworski worked an average of 91 pro bono hours each in 2010. One challenge is getting attorneys to provide the firm a record of all their pro bono time, says Houston partner Stewart Gagnon, chairman of the firm’s pro bono committee.
“They tell me, ‘I don’t do this type of work to get credit for it on my hours,’ ” he says.
Gagnon says he tells firm attorneys that corporate clients often ask about Fulbright’s pro bono activities.
“We can’t answer them accurately unless people record their time,” he says.
Associates receive credit toward an annual bonus for nonbillable activities, such as pro bono work, recruiting and writing articles, but they only receive that credit if they have worked at least 50 pro bono hours, he says.
“It’s a real strong incentive to do pro bono work in addition to other nonbillable work,” Gagnon says.
Attorneys at Hunton & Williams record their pro bono hours on their daily time sheets, says Dallas partner Daniel Garner, co-chairman of the pro bono committee in the firm’s Dallas office. He says that, administratively, the firm handles pro bono work like any client matter, beginning with a conflict check, an engagement letter and assigning a code number to the file. The firm’s Texas attorneys worked an average of 57 pro bono hours each last year.
“We emphasize that it is our culture to do this, and we celebrate it,” he says.
The firm also has a goal of 100 percent participation with every attorney doing some pro bono work each year, he says. But the firm does not expect all of its attorneys to find pro bono work, instead relying on pro bono committee members to find projects that match attorneys’ interests, he says.
“From that point on the soft expectation is that you will do 20 hours at least and preferably 50,” he says. “If you’re an associate, you get 50 hours’ billable credit.”
Partner Jared Rusman, pro bono coordinator for the Dallas office of Weil, Gotshal, says that it is his responsibility to track down pro bono opportunities and offer colleagues “an appealing menu of things to choose from.” The firm expects every new attorney to work on a pro bono matter within their first two years with the firm and every partner to take or supervise a pro bono matter each year, Rusman says. Associates receive billable-hour credit for all pro bono work, he says. The firm’s Texas lawyers averaged 67 pro bono hours each in 2010.
“I’ll have a partner mention to me when we pass in the hall that they’re looking for something, and then I try to find the right thing [for them],” Rusman says. “Also an associate may take on a matter and come to me and say, ‘I’d like a partner to supervise me.’ So I’m responsible for finding supervisors.”
In Dallas, Rusman chairs a pro bono committee that includes associates and paralegals.
“The idea is to try to share the responsibility and the thought process for improving our pro bono practice, because it’s not just a top down process,” he says.