Pro Bono Partner Spike Shows Firms Upping Their Game

By Emma Cueto | March 1, 2020, 8:02 PM EST

The number of firms with pro bono partners, who spend most of their time overseeing and contributing to their firms' efforts to provide free legal services, is at an all-time high, a trend that suggests firms are getting more and more serious about such work, according to a recent report.

Over three decades after the first pro bono partner roles were created in the 1980s, at least 66 such partners exist internationally, with the position being most common for U.S. firms, according to the report released last month by the Pro Bono Institute in collaboration with DLA Piper, the Australian Pro Bono Centre, Pro Bono Institute in Washington DC and the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Experts say that the rise of pro bono partners reflects a broader trend of firms taking a more committed and structured approach to pro bono work.

"I think it relates to a firm's recognition that pro bono is an important part of the practice of law, that it is an important part of the culture of a law firm," Eve Runyon of the Pro Bono Institute told Law360.

According to the survey, 56 firms currently have at least one pro bono partner, ranging from small firms with only a few dozen attorneys to international juggernauts like DLA Piper. Most are salaried or fixed-share partners, rather than equity partners, and many started their careers as conventional, fee-generating attorneys before taking on the role.

At least six firms have more than one pro bono partner, and several firms in the survey also indicated that they are in the process of adding a second.

Notably, the survey did not find that firms tend to create a pro bono partner position at a time when pro bono work at the firm is expanding rapidly, suggesting that it isn't due to some inherent need for the job.

Rather, Runyon said, the position seemed to be more about principles than hours, pointing to the fact that a majority of survey respondents referenced firm values and a desire to demonstrate a pro bono commitment when asked about the business case for having a pro bono partner.

Other common responses included reputation benefits and client expectations.

"It's an expression of a firm's values," she said.

William Silverman, who was hired as the pro bono partner at Proskauer Rose LLP four year ago after working for over a decade as a fee-generating partner at Greenberg Traurig LLP, agreed.

"It's a sign of commitment from the firm," he said. "You can have [a staff member] run your pro bono program, but is that person going to have [access] to the firm management?"

Silverman told Law360 that a pro bono partner wouldn't be a fit at every firm. For the role to be useful, a firm has to have a real commitment to pro bono and the infrastructure for it, he said.

"Every firm is different," he said. "I don't think it's necessarily a one-size-fits-all system."

However, for firms that value pro bono, Silverman said, there are many benefits to having a full-time partner in charge of it, as opposed to other full-time staff. Partners are better positioned to develop pro bono partnerships and opportunities, such as initiatives Silverman has spearheaded to support prisoner re-entry and people without attorneys in family court, he said.

Partners are also able to provide better supervision for attorneys taking on pro bono projects and assess risk management.

"If a firm is going to expand its pro bono practice, [it should] make sure that it does so in a responsible way and that matters are properly vetted, and issues dealt with immediately and appropriately," he said. "That's certainly a function where you want an experienced lawyer."

Pro bono partners remain most common in the U.S., which is home to over 30 of the 66 partners identified by the survey. Australia and South Africa also have a handful of firms with the position. Ten such positions cover pro bono work in the U.K., including partners at firms like Ashurst, Dentons and DLA Piper, according to the report. 

About 70% of pro bono partners perform no fee-generating work, though some do still do billable work. However, many reported that having the title of partner gave them more credibility and clout within the firm.

Silverman argued that firms should consider the leadership of pro bono work the same way firms view leadership roles for practice groups.

"Every firm wants to have the best corporate department or the best litigation department, and you have that because you have senior, experienced lawyers who are running those departments," he said. "And there's really no difference to having a high-functioning, high-impact pro bono program."

--Editing by Aaron Pelc.

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Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated pro bono partner information related to the United Kingdom. The error has been corrected.

Update: This article has been updated with additional information about the report's authors.

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