The Work

December 15, 2008 5:16 PM

Pro Bono Picks Up in Down Times

Posted by Daphne Eviatar

From the December 2008 issue of The American Lawyer

When the Association of the Bar of the City of New York hosted a session in mid-October to train commercial lawyers to handle pro bono foreclosure cases, they expected about 70 to 80 people to show up.

"We ended up with 245," says Lynn Kelly, executive director of the City Bar Justice Center, the public interest arm of the city bar association. "It took us completely by surprise." Fortunately someone was able to rush to the corner copy shop to photocopy extra training materials. Still, says Kelly, "we didn't have enough food for them all."

If there's a silver lining to this economic meltdown, it's that a lot of lawyers at large firms have time on their hands to do pro bono work. And unlike the last recession, they're taking advantage of the slowdown. "They're not doing structured finance deals, so they're becoming available to do some of this financial work," says Kelley.

Dechert firm chairman Barton Winokur recently acknowledged just that, announcing that at least seven asso­ciates would be doing pro bono work full time due to a slowdown in the firm's structured finance practice. Winokur said the associates had committed to working at different public interest legal organizations for three to six months, although he declined to speculate about how long the slowdown at the firm--and the corresponding pro bono opportunity--might last.

Cadwalader, Wickersham and Taft says it's similarly seen an ­increase in pro bono hours as the firm's struc­tured finance prac­tice has slowed and as the firm has stepped up efforts to promote pro bono.

Steven Schulman, pro bono partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, is seeing something similar. Pro bono hours at Akin Gump have risen from 69 hours per attorney in 2007 to 85 hours per attorney through September of this year. Schulman says lawyers "have time to breathe now," and some are reaching out for pro bono work as a result.

At Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, a large class of new associates started earlier this fall, at a time when the firm expected to be busier. Many have embraced pro bono work. Pro bono counsel Ronald Tabak says, "I always stress to new asso­ciates the desirability of doing pro bono when you first start, not waiting to do it. And this year's group has not been ­waiting."

This is all good news to Esther Lardent, president of the Pro Bono Institute in Washington, D.C., who says the current increase is a distinct change from how some firms responded during the last recession.  Around 2001, she says, many firms "acted quickly and not always wisely" by changing firm policies to discourage, rather than promote, pro bono work. Some firms stopped giving equal credit for pro bono time, and ratcheted up billable hour requirements. 

This time, says Lardent, "we're not seeing that at all. Pro bono is now recognized as something that has real value, particularly when morale may be down and people are a little shaky."


Pro Bono 2008: A Silver Lining?
The American Lawyer, July 2008

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