Large law firms are devoting more hours than ever on pro bono work, according to a new report. The Pro Bono Institute in Washington DC said in the latest update of its Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge report that 129 firms reported more than 4.9 million hours of pro bono activity in 2017.
The ‘pro bono’ challenge
The findings represent the highest level of participation since the challenge was launched two decades ago. The non-profit group is dedicated to increasing pro bono work in the legal industry. The challenge tasks law firms with 50 or more lawyers to commit either 3 or 5 percent of a firm’s total paying client billable hours to pro bono work, to get more than half of their attorneys to participate in pro bono, and to spend a ‘majority’ of their pro bono time on persons ‘of limited means.’ In 2017, law firms with more than 1,000 attorneys spent the most time on pro bono work, with an average of 4.65 percent of their billable hours and an average of 75 pro bono hours per attorney. As a percentage of total paying client billable hours, pro bono hours increased at participating law firms from 3.6 percent in 2016 to 3.9 percent in 2017, just shy of the 2009 record of 4 percent.
Over the past two decades, pro bono has grown from a side project to its own department at many large law firms. In 1998, when the data started to be collected, participating firms spent only 2.8 percent of their billable hours on pro bono work. In the Pro Bono Institute’s report, 31 of the participating 129 firms (24 percent) reported that their pro bono hours had gone up more than 20 percent in 2016. The most pro bono hours were spent at large firms, which are more likely to have dedicated departments and infrastructure for pro bono work. The growth is attributable to several factors, including the fact that many 'big law' firms count pro bono work toward billable hour requirements.