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Legal News: Law Blog - WSJ.com
Pro B-Oh No! How Some Firms Explain Their 2008 Declines
By Ashby Jones
You’d have expected that pro-bono work at Big Law firms would have been on the rise in 2008. After all, back then, the peak of the layoff boom had yet to hit the firms. But at the same time, the pipeline of paid work had, at least on the transactional side, slowed to a trickle. What better to keep the associates busy while the firms waited the doldrums, one might have thought, than a bunch of pro-bono cases?
A nice story over at the American Lawyer on Thursday examines the degree to which this happened. The answer: while overall pro-bono work was up, overall, the picture was a bit more complex.
Reporter Drew Combs lays it out:
Beset by falling utilization rates, many firms channeled their lawyers’ idle time into pro bono last year, which perhaps explains the overall uptick. A lucky few may have been so busy with work that they weren’t able to squeeze in the 20 hours that The American Lawyer uses as the minimum annual standard. But we wanted to look at firms that had both a downturn in pro bono hours and their revenue per lawyer, a key financial indicator. If firms didn’t increase their pro bono while their finances were slipping, what was the explanation?
The piece then shines a light on the 16 firms that had both falling (or flat) revenue and falling pro-bono numbers in 2008. It’s a list of brand-name firms that includes Schulte Roth, Cravath, Fried Frank, Fenwick & West and King & Spalding.
A collection of the given rationales:
Schulte Roth: Special counsel Daniel Greenberg, who oversees the firm’s pro bono program, said the numbers were down partly because the numbers were so high in 2007 due to a time-intensive class action involving the firm and the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Cravath: Cravath explains that a few major pro bono matters settled in 2007, and that the firm is in the process of “filling the pipeline.” According to partner Stuart Gold, this can take time given that the firm chooses its cases selectively.
Fenwick & West: Managing partner Kathryn Fritz told AmLaw that the firm has been retooling its pro bono program in recent months in an effort to diversify beyond large trial matters, including death penalty cases.
King & Spalding: King & Spalding also cited several major pro bono matters that concluded or slowed to explain the 13.7 percent drop in its pro bono score. That said, a firm spokesperson wrote that the firm was picking up the pace. “Our 2009 pro bono hours are running 9 percent higher than they were for the same period last year,” the spokesperson wrote.
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