You need to do well to do good

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Published on 10/15/07

There's a relatively new book with the overwrought title "Lawyers Gone Bad," which contends that lawyers have abandoned helping the poor and middle class in their pursuit of profits.

However, the simple fact is that you can't fulfill a broader social purpose of serving the public unless you have the profitability to devote the time to pro bono work. Indeed, the largest firms know (just as the largest corporations do) that profitability supports programs and services that benefit people who cannot otherwise afford them.

If a firm wants to encourage lawyers to do good, it is essential that the compensation system track and give some compensation recognition for non-billable service — whether it is pro bono representation, involvement in professional associations, community service activity in the United Way or the arts, or some other use of lawyer time that does not go directly to billable client work.

Although lawyers regularly engage in many civic and charitable activities by volunteering, serving on bar association committees and boards of nonprofit organizations, and otherwise contributing to their communities, many large firms do not track and give pro bono credit for such activity. Instead they focus only on pro bono litigation.

Nearly 15 years ago, the American Bar Association and the Pro Bono Institute launched the "Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge." The challenge specifically seeks larger firms (those with more than 50 lawyers) to become signatories and make an institutional, rather than an individual lawyer, commitment to pro bono service — an annual target of either no less than 3 percent or 60 hours of each firm's total billable hours. (Firms have the option to select an alternative goal of five percent or 100 hours per attorney.)

Virtually all signatory firms have elected to use the percentage goals. By promoting a percentage goal, the challenge ties pro bono activity to firm revenue and productivity.

Revenue and profitability ultimately are the keys to successful pro bono performance in firms of any size. If the client billings are not sufficient to support pro bono non-billable time, the commitment to serving the public will be tenuous at best. Certainly an institutional pro bono target can best be met under a corporate compensation model, where all share in the firm's performance. But, for a solo practice or a megafirm, strong financial performance is the foundation that supports making a meaningful pro bono effort.

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