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Law360 (October 22, 2020, 5:47 PM EDT) -- Jenner & Block LLP said Thursday it is ramping up its commitment to pro bono legal services and pledged to provide $250 million worth of services over the next five years to clients in need of free representation.
The firm, which has logged about 1.6 million hours of pro bono service over the last three decades, said in a statement that the financial promise came in response to an environment where "representation in the pursuit of social, racial and economic justice is greater now than ever before."
The $50 million the firm plans to provide each year in free legal assistance is about 10% of Jenner & Block's gross annual revenue, co-managing partner Randy Mehrberg told Law360. He said the pledge adds structure to what had in the past been "a little more laissez-faire" approach.
"We are doubling down," Mehrberg said. "And we are embracing what we think is our responsibility as lawyers. We have an obligation."
The commitment, announced ahead of National Pro Bono week, comes amid a growing need for legal services during the coronavirus pandemic and as greater attention is placed on racial equity issues following a summer of mass demonstrations over the police killings of Black Americans.
With approximately 500 lawyers, Jenner & Block in 2019 reported more than 85,000 hours in pro bono legal work, representing about 170 hours per attorney. Its representation has included defense for asylum-seekers and on matters associated with transgender rights. In July, some of the firm's attorneys helped secure the release of an Illinois prisoner with preconditions making him more susceptible to illness during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mehrberg noted that the new commitment will formalize 100% participation from the firm's attorneys and include monthly reports tracking performance. He said the goal is "continuance improvement," suggesting a steady increase in time dedicated to pro bono work.
Hours spent on pro bono legal work have reached new highs over the last few years.
A Pro Bono Institute survey of more than 100 U.S. law firms from June found firms in 2019 collectively recorded the second-highest output of free legal representation ever, falling about 77,000 hours short of the record set in 2018. Despite the drop, the figures signaled progress because about 5 million pro bono hours were logged for the second year in a row, PBI said, adding that it set a "floor on expectations" for the future.
Pro Bono Institute CEO Eve Runyon said in a statement to Law360 that Jenner & Block's new pledge "sets very high standards and demonstrates the strength and breadth of its pro bono culture."
If history is an indicator, pro bono legal services could see a significant boost this year. Free legal services shot up by 13% in 2008, the year the financial crisis hit, compared to the previous year.
Demand has increased for a wide range of pro bono legal services in 2020. However, the pandemic has presented a new host of challenges, such as some Americans not having access to tools to connect virtually. In addition, attorneys with large firms don't typically practice in areas such as unemployment insurance and tenant rights where pro bono clients may need expertise, Sherman Sterling & LLP Partner Sarah McLean wrote for Law360 in early October.
"Hopefully, supply will meet that demand," Mehrberg said. "That's another reason why we think it's important to step up and say we're all in."
--Additional reporting by Michelle Gorman and RJ Vogt. Editing by Stephen Berg.
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