At a time of some idling in the legal industry, a good use of lawyer time may be to spiff up the old pro bono program.  Davis Polk & Wardwell recently announced the addition of Ronnie Abrams, former Manhattan US Attorney’s Office prosecutor and daughter of renowned First Amendment litigator Floyd Abrams, as its first Special Counsel for Pro Bono.  She succeeds a former associate of the firm who oversaw the program and is being made a partner.  For a firm with historically good standing on the American Lawyer’s pro bono A-list, one might wonder what prompted the star power addition.

"[Pro bono] is becoming much more important in terms of client relations, recruitment and marketing," says Esther F. Larfent, president of the Pro Bono Institute, which, since 1995, has urged large law firms to commit 3-5% of lawyer hours to pro bono work.  Hiring someone of stature to oversee the pro bono effort "is a very fast growing trend, there’s no question."  And having an inhouse partner can fill a talent void at firms that have historically relied on public organizations to oversee lawyer work.

As we all know, pro bono has been around for decades.  Pro bono was what firms long offered to do for pet projects of friends and clients that could also fill young lawyers’ time when real work got a little slow.

It has, however, become a much more complicated matter.  Feeding into the equation are various factors:  public perception (falling) of lawyers’ civic mindedness; the motivation of many who enter law school to "do good" followed by those same graduates going to big, bad corporate firms and suffering the resultant identity crises; the escalating dissatisfaction of law practitioners and correspondingly escalating attrition rates (perhaps related in part to the previous observation); inspired in part by the expanded transparency that Sarbanes Oxley has imposed on corporations, the increasing client demand (often with teeth) for their law firms to also demonstrate their bone fides in social agenda areas, such as diversity and community service.  There is even the prospect of using pro bono work as a marketing device to tether a firm to a new client or strengthen existing ties.

What Law Firms Are Doing

Some law firms have moved to adopt firm-wide programs that identify them with select non-profits or cause campaigns. Cravath, Swaine & Moore attracted widespread attention a few years ago when it became the primary sponsor of the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice in Brooklyn, one of 200 small schools that Mayor Michael Bloomberg created to overhaul public education in New York City. Cravath took ownership of this visionary community program, vowing “hands-on” involvement on an “in-school” basis. Throughout the firm, partners, associates and administrative staff work to develop and build an initiative that they believe can lead to real, systemic social change. 

Cravath’s community venture was sufficiently distinctive to merit feature news coverage. According to Stuart C. Ross, partner in ross+price communications, a public relations and marketing services agency that advises professional services firms, “What Cravath did, and how it was reported by the news media, represents an important shift… Clearly the press will cover effective and innovative corporate citizenship, but only if those efforts go well beyond simply writing a check or donating a few hours of legal expertise.”

Skadden had a 38% increase in pro bono hours in 2007 after it assigned Douglas Robinson, a longtime partner devoted to defenses in death penalty cases who was considering early retirement, to become its first pro bono partner. 

What are the Benefits for Law Firms? In addition to the obvious good these programs do for the community and the favorable public relations they can generate, these programs also have a positive impact on a firm’s retention and recruitment effort, producing real bottom-line results.  A study by the Center for Corporate Citizenship at Boston College revealed that 73% of employees involved in volunteering through work said their employers’ support of these initiatives had made them more committed to their jobs.

David Sirota, co-author of The Enthusiastic Employee: How Companies Profit by Giving Workers What They Want (Wharton School Publishing), argues that employees, regardless of industry focus or experience, have three basic goals in their work. First, they want to be treated “equitably,” with competitive pay, benefits, job security and respect. Second, employees want a sense of achievement from work and to feel pride in both their own position and in the organization of which they are a part. And third, employees want to experience camaraderie. As a Cravath partner phrased it, “This [camaraderie] is not mentioned much in our field, but it’s key – not only in the sense of having a friend, but working well together as a team. That is a tremendous source of satisfaction for people…. Working with the School for Law and Justice has been great for Cravath. Having one firm-wide project involving the entire staff builds office morale.” 

WilmerHale committed both financial support and a broad range of administrative and in-kind assistance, including active volunteer service, to six community youth and education organizations in Washington D.C. and Boston, which it reports “has made our lawyers and staff part of the fabric of these community organizations.” The firm takes pride in the striking results produced by its Youth and Education Initiative in terms of student morale, student and staff retention, college acceptance rates, child literacy, improved communication skills and community building. And, it reports, “our non-profit partnerships are a rich source of fulfillment—an internal glue that unites lawyers and staff through their volunteer service to inner-city children.”

According to James H. Quigley, CEO of Deloitte & Touche USA, “What we have seen at Deloitte & Touche is that one of the benefits of contributing to the community is that it helps employees develop leadership skills and business acumen. A [recent external] survey [we conducted] revealed a strong link between volunteering and professional success. Among other findings, the data showed that 86% of employed Americans believe volunteering can have a positive impact on their careers and 78% see volunteering as an opportunity to develop business skills, including decision-making, problem-solving and negotiating. Community service matters.”

From a recruiting perspective, both established professionals and young people from Gen X and Y are seeking more than a paycheck. Candidates are increasingly concerned with work/life balance opportunities, the existence and influence of a diversity committee and the extent of a firm’s involvement in the community. 

Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, the sole law firm sponsoring the inaugural conference in 2005 of the “Clinton Global Initiative," as the former president called it, had eleven associates participate in serving as personal aides to the heads of state, corporate chiefs and academics from around the world who attended.  As one associate explained, "I wanted to do something with my life besides chasing greenbacks, and so I chose Fried Frank in order to have a balance between serving clients and doing pro bono work." 

In terms of charitable giving and community good, law firms’ pro bono programs have long produced positive returns in the legal and broader community. However, most pro bono efforts are individual donations of time and expertise that don’t necessarily coalesce to make a major impact or project a firm identity, and therefore fail to provide not only the optimal amount of good but also the optimal public relations punch as well.