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WWL Pro Bono Survey 2017: Analysis

Who’s Who Legal is pleased to present the results of its fourth pro bono survey. Once again, the survey was open to firms around the world of any size, and its goal was to provide insight into the efforts firms go to give back to the jurisdictions and communities they work in. Firms were invited to fill in a questionnaire detailing, among other things, the size of their pro bono departments; the overall engagement of partners, non-partners and trainees in the firm; the average number of pro bono hours conducted by fee earners; as well as details of the most significant projects firms took part in during the survey period. We would like to thank all of the firms participating for the time and effort spent helping to put the survey together.

The profile of firms participating and performing well this year is somewhat different to previous years – we received strong participation from Latin America and Asia, but less from international firms, or those in Europe or the USA. As ever, the results are limited in that they only reflect those firms that submitted to the survey; they are not necessarily reflective of pro bono practices of all firms. What the results do demonstrate is the strong levels of engagement with this type of work among firms of all sizes, as well as those in smaller jurisdictions.

All of the results in this survey are based on work conducted in 2015.

Results analysis

Pro bono team make-up

It was interesting to note the different approaches taken by firms towards the organisation of pro bono work. The complexities around weaving pro bono work into a billable hours system that is constantly under scrutiny by clients and law firm accounts departments unsurprisingly mean that most firms need a full-time team to manage the work. Of the firms that responded to our survey, 90 per cent told us that they had a dedicated pro-bono team, although – identically to last year’s survey – only 70 per cent of respondents had a team comprising at least one full-time member of staff. The remaining 30 per cent either had no dedicated pro bono team at all, or else one comprising only part-time practitioners.

For those firms with a dedicated team, the average team size was 3.85 people. This demonstrates both the amount of organisation involved in managing this type of work and the commitment made by firms to incorporate pro bono work into their ethos and workload.

All but one firm had a pro bono coordinator; and 73 per cent of the dedicated coordinators worked full-time in the role. Of those coordinators, half are partners and half are either associates or non-lawyers.

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Firm approach and engagement

Only one small firm reported to us that it does not monitor pro bono hours; all others keep track, either purely for monitoring purposes or because they count towards billable hours. On that note, 58 per cent of firms reported that pro bono work does count towards billable hours – down slightly from 63 per cent last year. It is hoped that this figure will increase in the coming years as firms incorporate pro bono work more into their fee-earners’ workloads. Firms that do not do this run the risk of disincentivising practitioners from handling such work, as it instead has to be undertaken in their spare time. Firms that we rated highly in the survey tended to allow pro bono work to count towards billable hours.

In terms of a limit on the amount of pro bono counting towards billable hours, only one firm reported that it capped hours, but added that this cap varied depending on the complexity of the matter in question, allowing practitioners some flexibility.

An impressive 91 per cent of firms reported that participation in pro bono work is factored into performance appraisals. Meanwhile 55 per cent said that such participation was factored into compensation for all lawyers, and 27 per cent said it affected compensation for associates, but not partners. Only 18 per cent said that the amount of pro bono work undertaken is not factored into compensation at all.

Several firms demonstrated institutional commitment to pro bono through the use of targets, either for the firm as a whole or for the individual practitioners: 40 per cent of firms had a firm-wide target for total pro bono hours, while 50 per cent had targets for individual lawyers. Some of these targets are recommended or mandated by national regulations or voluntary codes, such as the Pro Bono for the Americas Declaration, which recommends 20 hours of pro bono work per lawyer per year. Of the firms with targets, 50 per cent told us these had been met in 2015: almost exactly the same figure as last year.

All of the firms responding told us that matters were either led or supervised by a partner.

Partner-level engagement remains lower than associate engagement overall. Disappointingly, over one-third of firms reported partner participation of less than 10 per cent, while another quarter had partner participation of 11 to 25 per cent. By comparison, no firm reported associate engagement at less than 10 per cent, while 72 per cent of firms had associate engagement falling between 11 and 40 per cent. Interestingly, 18 per cent of firms reported that associate engagement was over 70 per cent, while only 9 per cent of firms said that their partners participated to this extent.

Engagement among trainees varied greatly, with 29 per cent of firms reporting less than 10 per cent engagement by trainees, but 43 per cent reporting trainee engagement at 41 per cent or higher.

We also asked firms how many of their lawyers recorded 10 or more hours of pro bono work as another measure of overall participation and commitment to the work by fee-earners. Figures varied from 8 to 71 per cent, with 30 per cent on average of practitioners firm-wide recording 10 or more hours of pro bono work in 2015.

Types of work undertaken

The types of pro bono work handled by firms was largely unsurprising. The most common types of work were human rights, legal reform, disability rights and child custody work, in addition to general corporate work for NGOs. However, nearly all types of work, from immigration to intellectual property to environmental policy, were covered by at least some firms.

Reasons for doing pro bono work

Firms are keen to report the pro bono work they do. A significant 82 per cent of firms publish a report on their pro bono work, while 55 per cent communicate news of their pro bono work directly to clients. Certainly, it appears that clients are interested in knowing about the firm’s commitment to the area, which is perhaps an indication that law firms’ roles in the community and their overall ethos and objectives continue to be an important part of the choice that clients make. This year, 72 per cent of firms said that clients or potential clients ask about the pro bono work that the firm performs – down slightly from (but broadly consistent with) the 77 per cent reported last year.

We also asked firms why their lawyers engage in pro bono activities. The most popular response (80 per cent) was “in order to give back to their local communities”, while 70 per cent said that it was for their own “personal satisfaction”. Other popular responses were “commitment to a cause” and “to assist those who may fall outside of the legal aid system”. Personal development is also an important driver, however, with the development of legal skills, networking opportunities and free training all being mentioned.

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Our annual pro bono survey continues to produce fascinating results. The variation in the types and locations of firms participating each year makes it tricky to directly compare results, but each survey nevertheless gives a snapshot into the way firms approach pro bono work. We are encouraged by firms’ commitment overall to such work and we hope to see this continue in future surveys.

You can read an interview with our Pro Bono Firm of the Year, Kim & Chang, here and you can read an analysis of 10 top firms in our survey this year here.

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