Three years ago, with the economy booming and billable hours soaring, volunteerism among the lawyers at the large Minneapolis firm of Faegre & Benson was beginning to languish.
Senior partners, afraid a perception of big bucks coupled with small hearts would diminish their firm's stature in the community, decided it was time to get creative.
Instead of relying on traditional models, they focused the firm's pro bono efforts on a single program, JUSTice FOR KIDS, a local nonprofit that speeds placement of children languishing in foster homes.
The pro bono participation rate spiked to 92 percent - compared to less than a third of that in most firms - and more than 30 tax and real estate attorneys underwent specialized training so they could represent juveniles in court.
Faegre & Benson is not alone. The long-standing legal tradition of pro bono - or free legal service to those without the means to pay - is undergoing a broad transformation. While some firms may see the work as a burdensome obligation, others are involving more of their employees, in more innovative ways.
Shifts in the legal field and headlines about a pro bono decline prompted some of the changes. In the past, pro bono was the province of a law firm's litigators - trial attorneys with the courtroom experience and skills that nonprofits or battered wives needed to represent them.
But that model has broken down as large firms have grown to include hundreds of corporate attorneys who rarely see the inside of a courtroom. "It's a huge problem in the pro bono community. That is, a lot of attorneys feeling there are not projects appropriate for their expertise," says Peter Gilhuly, a partner with Latham & Watkins in Los Angeles and national chair of its pro bono committee.
Adding to the problem was the economic success of the '90s. The Pro Bono Institute sets the annual volunteer target at 3 percent of billable hours. For a prosperous firm like Faegre & Benson, that means the pro bono target soared from 16,000 hours in 1999 to 18,000 in 2000 and a projected 21,000 hours this year.
As a result, not every firm is keeping up. Last year American Lawyer magazine reported survey results that showed the average lawyer spent 36 hours in 1999 performing pro bono work versus 56 hours in 1992. (The American Bar Association target is 50.)
But those firms willing to get creative have bucked the trend. Latham & Watkins specifically targeted pro bono opportunities for its non-trial lawyers, and in doing so raised its donated services from $9.7 million in 1999 to $15.2 million in 2000. At the same time, it lifted the average number of donated hours per attorney from 42 to over 65.
In addition to the service they provide society, the firms increasing pro bono work see other pluses. Law school grads often demand pro bono opportunities, since they satisfy a young lawyer's sense of idealism and also give valuable courtroom experience and community networking.
And the public relations benefits can be significant. To the extent Minnesotans gave Faegre & Benson thought in the past, the large law firm was just another 300 sharks in the Land of a Thousand Lakes. Now, its lawyers have produced mediation models for use in juvenile courts and fulfilled their goal of quickening foster-kid placement. In fact, the program has been so successful that the chief justice of Minnesota's Supreme Court has asked other law firms to participate in guardian work.
JUSTice FOR KIDS "is the last thing
some people would think Faegre & Benson would do," says Jodie Boderman, the firm's pro bono coordinator. "But that thinking has changed."
Ms. Boderman is part of another growing trend: pro bono coordinators with time carved out of their jobs - rather than in addition to a full-time caseload - to oversee law firms' increasingly complex programs.
To be sure, not everyone is satisfied. "We haven't at any time come close to meeting the legal needs of the poor, so in that sense there is always a shortage," says Robert Weiner, pro bono chair of the American Bar Association.
Esther Lardent, president of the Pro Bono Institute in Washington, agrees, estimating the donations of pro bono legal services cover only one-fifth of the need. She says demand is growing as the legal system becomes increasingly obtuse to non-lawyers. "We've created a society ... where often it is very difficult to vindicate basic rights without the expertise of a lawyer."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor