Despite economy, law firms continue to provide services free of charge
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Once a month, three to four lawyers from Jones Day leave their Downtown office and go to Larimer to the Veterans Place, a nonprofit agency that supports homeless veterans. During the monthly clinic, the lawyers may make calls on behalf of veterans with landlord issues or help work out details of child custody arrangements or debt problems.
Unlike cases they handle the rest of the month, the work doesn't translate to billable hours. The assistance for indigent vets, which started in 2008, is part of the firm's wide-ranging pro bono practice that provides free legal assistance to individuals and organizations that otherwise could not afford it.
Though law firms were hit hard by the recession -- many cut personnel over the past couple years and recruited far fewer new associates -- pro bono work remains a significant component to how many firms define themselves in the community.
Last year, pro bono activities among law firms with at least 50 lawyers or more "held steady," according to a study by the Pro Bono Institute based in Washington, D.C.
In fact, the report said 134 of the largest firms in the U.S. generated 4.9 million hours of pro bono work, up 24,000 hours from 2008. That translated to about $2 billion in free legal services.
"Given how intensely the recession hit the large law firm economy, we thought that was pretty remarkable," said Esther Lardent, president and chief executive of the Pro Bono Institute.
A separate study by trade publication American Lawyer said pro bono hours among the country's 200 largest firms totaled 5.7 million in 2009, up 2 percent from 2008.
But American Lawyer noted that growth in pro bono hours last year "slowed ... after a decade of hefty, often double-digit increases."
"If anything, the economy presented more circumstances where people needed more help with pro bono," said Laura Ellsworth, partner in charge of Jones Day's Pittsburgh office.
According to the American Lawyer report, Jones Day's lawyers firm-wide averaged 64.6 hours of pro bono work last year. The firm, based in Cleveland, ranked 75th for its pro bono among all 200 firms on the American Lawyer list.
Other nonprofits where it provides service include Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, and at the Imani Christian Academy, where lawyers taught classes and conducted mock trials in which students participated with real judges in real courtrooms, Ms. Ellsworth said.
Thomas Jones, a litigator who coordinates pro bono activities in the firm's Pittsburgh office, said they aren't mandatory for the firm's lawyers but, "I have a waiting list of people who want to take on these representations. They are interesting cases and generally attorneys like to help out and give back."
Christopher Walters, senior pro bono counsel for Pittsburgh-based Reed Smith, said pro bono hours at most big firms grew rapidly before the economic slowdown "and then plateaued."
Reed Smith experienced layoffs during the recession. "Our lawyers are working more billable hours than they did before," Mr. Walters said. "So when a lawyer gets frantic on work from paying clients, they don't have as much time for other things or they will defer other things like a pro bono project."
Reed Smith attorneys firm-wide spent an average 46.7 hours apiece last year on pro bono work, according to American Lawyer, and the firm was ranked 92nd overall on the list of 200 firms.
The firm offers such projects to its lawyers on a voluntary basis, Mr. Walters said. Pro bono work conducted by attorneys at its Pittsburgh headquarters includes adoption services for foster children, appeals for inmates on death row and a range of legal services for members of Amish communities. Reed Smith also teams with attorneys from GlaxoSmithKline to assist senior citizens with creating wills and other documents at a regular clinic in McKees Rocks.
Like many large firms, Reed Smith encourages its associates to take on pro bono work because it provides valuable experience, said Mr. Walters.
"If we're representing General Electric, the second-year associate is not too likely to be the lead attorney on the case. On the other hand, if we're representing ... a pro bono client through a homeless advocacy network, the second-year associate will go to court and be the lead lawyer."
An internal breakdown of Reed Smith's pro bono activity showed 81 percent of associates participated last year with an average of 69 hours; compared with 52 percent of partners with an average 30 hours; and 53 percent of counsel -- experienced lawyers who are not partners -- who averaged 55 hours each.
"For younger lawyers, pro bono is a lot less dollars," said Mr. Walters. "But it's a whole lot more experience, and can build skills and let them be the boss of the case and learn to deal with clients faster. ... It's just good training."
John Ferreira, pro bono partner in the Pittsburgh office of Morgan Lewis, said the Philadelphia-based firm tries to emphasize to its lawyers that "all of us have a personal obligation and commitment to render pro bono service."
"Some firms have very prominent cases in which some of the lawyers do a lot of pro bono work. In our case, the emphasis is on getting everyone involved, even those who don't usually spend time in court."
For instance, some of the firm's corporate and transactional lawyers have, as he described it, "bravely gone to court and gotten out of their comfort zone to represent [women seeking] protection-from-abuse orders."
American Lawyer ranked Morgan Lewis 33rd nationally and said its lawyers spent an average 75.3 hours last year on pro bono work. In Pittsburgh, its projects include working with disabled veterans trying to recover benefits and assisting small nonprofit organizations on tax exemptions and other financial issues.
As the economy slowed, Mr. Ferreira said, Morgan Lewis laid off attorneys. "So we have not grown like we would have. We are a bit smaller so by our sheer numbers we might tend to reduce pro bono hours overall.
"But there's an interesting pull: When things are slower, presumably lawyers who would be doing client work have more time for pro bono. And even as the economy is picking up and becoming busier, we still have that commitment."
First Published October 4, 2010 12:00 am