Pro Bono Program

Set Up a Pro Bono Infrastructure That Fits Your Firm

All the law firms we spoke with have an infrastructure to develop, assign, and manage pro bono work. The firms we spoke with ranged in size from 25 attorneys to over 250. Some were single-office firms, others were D.C. offices of national firms; several were headquarters offices. Each firm’s pro bono program was set up in a different way, but there were common, core aspects.

  • Establish clear accountability for the pro bono program.
    Lawyers carry out their assignments—it is part of the legal work ethic. As a result, it is not surprising that when someone is appointed to manage a firm’s pro bono program, the program thrives. All of the ‘40 at 50' firms have someone assigned to run their pro bono program. In some cases, it is a duty collateral to a lawyer’s other work; other firms have one or two people whose only assignment is the day-to-day management of the firm’s pro bono program. Even when pro bono program management is just part of a lawyer’s portfolio, we learned that firm leadership understands—and expects—that administration of the pro bono program will consume at least 25 percent, and sometimes more, of that lawyer’s time. In addition, firms have a pro bono committee, typically made up of partners and associates. The role of pro bono committees varies with the particular needs of the firm. A firm with offices in many cities may have a pro bono committee in each office focused on local concerns, or it may have a national pro bono committee that addresses broader, firm-wide policy issues. Similarly, a firm with only one office may use a pro bono committee to screen possible pro bono matters, or to fill a policy-making role.
  • Include senior lawyers in the pro bono infrastructure.
    The size of a firm may drive the kind of infrastructure that is in place: one of the smaller firms we spoke with uses its management committee to address pro bono issues; another firm of the same size has a pro bono committee and a partner assigned to coordinate pro bono work. The common thread is the involvement of both mid-level and senior-level attorneys in committees that address pro bono issues. This ensures that a consistent message is sent about the importance of pro bono to the firm and to individual lawyers throughout their careers.
  • Hire someone good to run your pro bono program.
    Firms are increasingly hiring staff, typically an attorney, to coordinate pro bono matters. Depending on the size of the firm involved, these positions are either full- or part-time—the key, as one firm described it, is to “hire someone who can be an organized, enthusiastic, and effective administrator, case supervisor, and cheerleader.” The best firms make sure that their pro bono counsel is visibly supported by a strong committee, senior management, or both. They also ensure that the pro bono counsel is focused not on just doing pro bono work, but on engaging as many lawyers as possible in pro bono work. Pro bono counsel develop relationships with area legal services providers, provide orientations for incoming attorneys, and help firm lawyers find pro bono matters of interest to them. In addition, some pro bono counsel supervise and train firm lawyers in the skills needed to handle particular pro bono cases, and also carry their own pro bono caseload. Some of these pro bono counsel moved from a regular attorney position in the firm into the pro bono job; others were hired from the legal services community. One firm noted that until the firm dedicated an attorney position to the pro bono program, there was limited pro bono participation at the firm, in spite of written policies encouraging and setting targets for pro bono.
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