Pro Bono Survey Results

In response to the growing attention to the practice of pro bono, Who’s Who Legal decided to commence tracking the progress of institutionalisation among law firms in 2013. Now in its third year, the survey – which is open to law firms of all sizes from all jurisdictions – provides a valuable insight into the culture of pro bono within the legal profession.

This year’s survey has been remodelled to allow for a deeper analysis of the systems in place to enable law firms to carry out pro bono work. Furthermore, it looks into the relationship between clients and their law firms – be that in the form of collaboration on projects, or clients asking their legal counsel for details on the work they have been involved in. 

We received responses from a mix of national and international firms across Asia, Europe, the Americas, the Middle East and Africa, which stands as a testament to the growing practice of pro bono and the efforts taken by law firms to engage all lawyers throughout their network. We’d like to take this opportunity to thank respondents for their participation in what is a time-consuming and in-depth survey, and to applaud them for their impressive achievements as highlighted in the following pages. While there is always room for improvement, it is only with commitment from the countless individuals and organisations who are spearheading the movement that progress can be made.

Quick Facts

  • Total hours spent on pro bono: 911,183.5
  • Average number of pro bono hours per fee-earner: 32.4 hours
  • Average size of firm (fee-earners): 812 (Range: four lawyers to 3,074 lawyers)
  • Partner engagement: One-third of firms reported 56 per cent or higher partner engagement
  • All matters partner-led or supervised: 93 per cent of firms
  • Participation factored into appraisals/performance review: 66 per cent of firms
  • Participation factored into compensation determination for all lawyers (including partners): 56 per cent of firms
  • Signatory to a pro bono organisation: 74 per cent of firms
  • Pro bono coordinator: 88 per cent of firms have a coordinator

The survey is based on pro bono work in 2014. It is important to note, when examining the results, that there is likely a natural bias towards work of this kind among firms taking the time to complete our survey. Therefore the sample of law firms, while providing an interesting snapshot, does not reflect the full reality. Who’s Who Legal hopes that the results below will encourage other law firms to increase their activities and share best practice.

The results

The pro bono movement continues to gain momentum. According to Tim Soutar, chair of the IBA pro bono committee, “There are a lot of encouraging signs that pro bono is making progress globally – particularly in Latin America and Africa.” One of the most exciting developments was the watershed moment in 2013, in Brazil, when the bar association issued an injunction to lift restrictions prohibiting lawyers from providing free legal services to individuals. While the current injunction is only preliminary, it marks a step in the right direction.

While many law firms can trace their involvement in activities back to their founding figures, it is only in the last two decades that the practice has moved into the mainstream. We asked law firms when their pro bono practice was established; while answers ranged from 1926 to 2015, two-thirds of the firms have formalised their practices since 1996.

While there are many reasons for law firms and lawyers to engage in pro bono activities (see chart 2) – not least to assist those who may fall outside of the legal aid system – increasingly law firms are finding that there is a business case for taking part in pro bono activities. Of the firms taking part in our survey, 77 per cent say they are asked by clients or potential clients about the pro bono work they have undertaken; and 74 per cent of firms communicate this information to clients, more than half of which publish a report in print or electronically. Moreover, almost half of firms say they collaborate with in-house legal teams on projects offering a unique opportunity to enhance inside/outside counsel relationships. Morrison & Foerster regularly works alongside clients on projects; its London lawyers have recently been working with firm client Unisys on drafting an employment manual for Balloon Ventures, a start-up social enterprise connecting international volunteers with micro-entrepreneurs in Africa to grow innovative businesses that create jobs and improve living conditions. Sandra Nazzal, senior pro bono coordinator at Morrison & Foerster, says that the Unisys legal team has shown a deep interest in getting involved in pro bono work.

So how are law firms getting on? Over half of the firms surveyed reported meeting their 2014 targets, be they individual or firm-wide targets. The total number of hours performed by those entering the survey comes to 911,183.5: an impressive figure that will no doubt have changed the lives of many individuals and aided many organisations. On average, this is 32.4 pro bono hours per fee-earner across all those in the survey. While this figure is useful as a benchmark, it does not provide a clear picture on how much pro bono work is being performed in different offices around the world.

In tracking institutionalisation it is important to look at engagement levels within a firm. It’s one thing to be reporting high levels of activity and an overall high number of recorded hours; but to see what is really going on we need to delve further and look at how activity is spread across the different levels of a firm.

One-third of firms reported partner and associate engagement levels of 56 per cent or more. By comparison, only 18 per cent of firms put their trainee participation at 56 per cent or more. This is in contrast to last year’s results, which supported the notion of trainee engagement traditionally being high owing to its use as a training tool and a hiring incentive. Soutar says, “It’s possible that, following recovery in the global economy, lawyers are seeing growing levels of work which in turn might mean there is less time for trainees to devote to pro bono – this is notwithstanding many firms encouraging participation. Furthermore, job security concerns might mean that trainees feel under more pressure to produce billable hours, and that this is at the expense of their pro bono involvement.”

Partner participation is a key indicator of institutionalisation demonstrating clear leadership and support for pro bono from the top. In 2014, 30 per cent of firms saw more than 70 per cent of partners engaging in activities – a small increase from the 26 per cent of firms who reported the same figure in 2013. Partner involvement also ensures the proper supervision of matters and the quality of service on offer: 93 per cent of firms ensure matters are either partner-led or supervised, compared with 95 per cent of firms in last year’s survey. According to Soutar, “In the interest of best practice, pro bono should be addressed in the same way as performing work for a firm’s fee-paying clients, and adequate supervision is critical.”

For the first time, we asked law firms how pro bono is treated in performance reviews and compensation determination. Two-thirds of firms say they factor pro bono participation into appraisals and performance review processes, while 56 per cent of firms say pro bono work affects compensation determination for all lawyers. An additional 11 per cent say it affects compensation determination for all fee-earners aside from partners. This is a promising figure that will certainly encourage activity among lawyers within firms. To further incentivise lawyers, firms often allow time spent on such matters to count towards billable targets – as is the case in 63 per cent of the firms in our survey. This is a lower figure than the 80 per cent recorded in 2014; however it could be attributable to the slight increase in responses from national firms, as opposed to international firms, compared with last year. In 2014, 50 per cent of the responses were from international firms, while in 2015 this figure fell to 44 per cent.

It’s important for law firms to recognise pro bono efforts, as often the alternative is for practitioners to devote their free time, in the absence of any structure allowing them to fit it in with the hours they can bill. Treating pro bono hours as billable is a major step in institutionalising the practice within a law firm.

The survey demonstrates the positive steps being taken by firms to formalise policies surrounding the practice of pro bono. Of those responding to our survey, only 11 per cent of firms did not have a coordinator, while 70 per cent of firms have a designated pro bono team. In the vast majority of firms (88 per cent) coordinating the pro bono practice is a full-time role; however, law firms still differ on whether to appoint a lawyer or a non-lawyer to this role (see the chart below). The role of the coordinator is a tricky one: not only are they responsible for selecting and managing projects, they are also often tasked with encouraging participation to develop the firm’s practice. According to our survey, in 74 per cent of firms it is the responsibility of the pro bono coordinator or the committee to distribute cases among lawyers.

Implementing targets is also a useful metric for firms to monitor their own progress and to provide a goal. Individual targets for lawyers ranged from 15 to 40 hours, and appear increasingly common. Targets are often a result of the firm being a signatory to a pro bono organisation – the most popular being the Pro Bono Institute’s Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge (lawyers can opt to meet a target of either 3 or 5 per cent of their total billed hours per year) and the Pro Bono Declaration of the Americas (lawyers are asked to meet a commitment of 20 hours per year). On top of this, in certain countries the professional bodies dictate a set level of activity. For example, the Korean Bar Association requires lawyers to spend over 20 hours on pro bono activities each year. Furthermore, the New York and California bars have a mandatory requirement for new lawyers seeking admission to the bar.

As in previous years, we asked firms to record their proudest pro bono achievement of the year. The responses are a strong reminder of the differing focuses and the unique culture of each firm. While some law firms singled out the projects which best leveraged the skills of their lawyers (such as Hunton & Williams’ “neighbourhood” offices assisting legal aid overflow or those persons falling just above the federal poverty guidelines), others focused on high-impact results for the individuals involved (including Fasken Martineau’s involvement in a litigation where individuals had suffered actionable emotional shock from the police’s failure to act in a domestic violence matter). Non-contentious activities continue to rise in prominence with “transactional or institutional support for NGOs” being one of three top responses among law firms when asked for their preferred areas of focus. Clayton Utz opened 306 new files for 167 not-for-profit organisations in 2014, while DLA Piper, the winner of our 2014 pro bono award, continues to work in partnership with UNICEF to improve child justice worldwide. This project, now in its second year, has seen the involvement of lawyers from more than 35 of DLA Piper’s offices.

One of the challenges we face each year is how to quantify success. In Soutar’s words, “As firms have different approaches to their day-to-day practices, so do they in the pro bono work they choose to do.” He adds, “It is important that firms focus on not just producing figures, but ensuring that they conduct quality work making a difference to people.”

When determining the leading law firms in the survey and deciding on an overall pro bono firm of the year, we decided from the outset to look at how firms approach the practice of pro bono, measuring senior buy-in; steps taken to establish a pro bono culture; and whether the projects leverage the skills of lawyers at the firm. This year we have also taken a look at the average hours of pro bono per fee earner and how many individuals at the firm recorded 10 or more pro bono hours. This has enabled us to compare firms of significant size difference on an even footing. We also continue to take great store by the proudest achievement identified by the firms themselves. In using this range of metrics, we hope to give law firms of all different sizes an equal opportunity to stand out in the results and to be recognised as one of our top 10 leading firms.

Article gallery (4 images)

Participation Levels

Respondents by region

Why do lawyers engage in pro bono?

Coordination of Practice

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W11 1QQ, UK