WWL Pro Bono Survey 2018: Analysis

WWL is delighted to present the results of its fifth annual pro bono survey, which highlights the work of firms around the world in making a positive impact to the communities they work in.

Questions centred around the size and structure of firms’ pro bono departments, the level of engagement and the number of hours dedicated to pro bono work at all levels of the firm.  

The results below are based solely on firms who submitted responses to the survey and are based on work conducted between August 2016 and July 2017. While they may not be reflective of all law firms or jurisdictions, the responses we received from around the world clearly demonstrate the high importance firms attach to pro bono work, and the strong level of engagement in the practice overall. We would like to thank all of the firms that took part in the survey for their input.

Areas of focus

When asked why lawyers engage in pro bono work, “a commitment to a cause” was highlighted as one of the primary reasons. Areas of focus cited among respondent firms included child custody, disability rights, domestic violence, education, minority rights, rights of vulnerable individuals and rights of the elderly. These initiatives are broadly aligned with the shared desire to “give back to the local community” and “assist those who may fall outside the legal aid system”, factors that drive pro bono work in many firms.

Firms’ focus areas varied considerably, as did the work undertaken to advance these goals. Respondents almost universally provide support for charities or NGOs. They also harness the expertise of their practice area teams to provide employment, environmental, family, health, IP, real estate and corporate law advice in a range of cases. Firms are also active in shaping legal reform and arguing human rights cases, with 73 per cent of respondents engaging in this kind of work.

Structure of pro bono teams

To support lawyers in providing these services, pro bono teams have become an almost indispensable unit in firms serious about giving back. Of the firms that responded to the question in this year’s survey, 87 per cent have a dedicated pro bono team to source and manage work throughout the firm. Firms reported teams of between two and 10 members, with the average team consisting of six members. Although many respondents have had a pro bono team since their establishment, this is a significant increase on last year, in which we recorded an average team size of 3.85, and strongly indicates the growth of the practice within law firms. 

Almost all firms that responded to our survey have a designated pro bono coordinator, many of whom are qualified lawyers. Among these coordinators, 87 per cent work full-time, compared to 70 per cent last year, further demonstrating firms’ ever-increasing commitment to pro bono work.

Pro bono coordinators play a significant role in distributing work among lawyers with 43 per cent of them responsible for the task. Partners are responsible in 29 per cent of firms, an encouraging sign for engagement at the top level.

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Engagement

Firm-wide and individual targets vary from firm to firm. Our research showed that, across all of the firms that responded this year, an average of 41 per cent of fee earners recorded more than 10 hours of pro bono work the preceding year, though results ranged from 8 per cent to an impressive 80 per cent between firms. The levels of engagement also varied significantly between partners, associates and trainees, although most of the firms responding to the survey had substantial associate involvement, and on average good levels of partner engagement.

Across all the firms we spoke to this year, pro bono work was either led or supervised by a partner. Partners led the work in roughly one-third of firms and took a more supervisory role in the remaining 67 per cent.

Overall, associates were the most engaged with pro bono work. Disappointingly, one-third of firms reported partner participation of less than 10 per cent. By contrast, however, a further third stated that over 70 per cent of their partners participate. Compared to last year’s survey, which identified only 9 per cent of firms where partner participation exceeded 70 per cent, this is a positive indication of increasing engagement among partners.

We also asked firms how clients view their pro bono engagements. In our survey, 80 per cent of firms communicated to clients their pro bono work, through – for example – the publication of a pro bono report. Almost all firms (87%) reported that new and existing clients enquire about their pro bono work. Given the increasing focus on corporate responsibility and environmental and social government among the business community, this is an encouraging development.

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Billable hours

In 80 per cent of firms surveyed, pro bono work counts towards billable hours – an increase of 17 per cent compared to last year. In this year’s survey, all of the firms where pro bono work does not count towards billable hours were smaller outfits, with 30 or fewer qualifying fee earners, though other firms of this size did opt to count it. 

The number of billable hours spent on pro bono work varied greatly from firm to firm, but some of the largest firms undertook impressive amounts. Our Pro Bono Firm of the Year, Gibson Dunn, racked up a staggering 170,000 hours of pro bono work across its network of 19 offices.  

Conclusions

Our annual pro bono survey aims to provide insights into the market based on information submitted by leading firms around the world. While the results can only show a snapshot of the market based on the information submitted by respondents, they paint a clear picture of the high (and ever-increasing) level of commitment among firms and the groundbreaking work being done across a broad cross-section of the legal market.

For examples of such work, you can read an interview with our Pro Bono Firm of the Year, Gibson Dunn and Crutcher. We also highlight nine top firms in this year’s survey in our leading firms summary.

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