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Pro Bono Begins With a Strong Foundation, Contributed by Brian Moran, Paul Hastings LLP

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Over the past several years, global law firm Paul Hastings LLP has built a strong foundation for its pro bono and community service efforts nationwide, and has received accolades for its success in doing so. In the firm’s New York office, this recognition is the result of Paul Hastings’ collective focus on excellence in both client service and attorney development. In the process, the Firm has come to understand how essential the support of management and the commitment of its attorneys are to the foundation of its pro bono program.

There are many challenges that any law firm will face in establishing and maintaining a successful pro bono program. The key to creating a successful pro bono program is devising a program that motivates attorneys to take on pro bono work and enables them to feel the direct reward, both personally and professionally, of having undertaken it. At any firm, there will always be those attorneys who are drawn to doing pro bono work and those who are not. Many attorneys feel a moral imperative to give their time to helping those less fortunate. Pro bono work presents attorneys with the opportunity to become involved with specific causes or issues important to them. Motivating attorneys who are less inclined to want to do pro bono work and those whose workload does not necessarily lend itself to doing pro bono work sometimes presents significant challenges.

These challenges can be overcome provided that firm management is committed to creating a successful program. This may involve a change in the firm’s culture. A firm’s top management and its partners must actively encourage and support its pro bono program. If pro bono work is vaguely encouraged but not truly supported by a firm, attorneys at the firm may not feel committed to undertaking pro bono work. Where management truly supports the firm’s pro bono efforts, attorneys are empowered to create and develop initiatives on matters and issues that are important to them and to take on leadership roles in promoting the firm’s pro bono goals.

As all attorneys are expected to devote significant time to client work, some may be reluctant to take on significant pro bono matters. They may be concerned that taking on a significant pro bono matter may not be feasible given their existing workload or that it may prevent them from meeting a firm’s target for billable hours. Law firms can take steps to alleviate these concerns in at least two ways. First, the firm can create a team approach to pro bono projects so that several attorneys share the responsibility of handling the matter and can shift responsibility as their workload changes. Second, management of the firm can send the message that the commitment to client excellence requires that work for pro bono clients be prioritized in the same manner as work for regular clients of the firm. Toward this end, the firm can provide incentives for attorneys to become involved in pro bono work by counting all or part of the attorneys’ pro bono hours towards its billable hours requirement and by recognizing the contributions of these attorneys when making bonus and compensation determinations.

Some attorneys have difficulty finding pro bono work that is meaningful to them, either personally or professionally. Firm management must convey the message to all attorneys that pro bono work can provide meaning in several ways. First, it can provide attorneys the opportunity to work on causes that are important to them personally. Second, it can provide attorneys with opportunities to gain experience they may not otherwise get and allow them to take on matters that fall outside of their practice area or comfort zone, making them better lawyers. Third, it can provide the basis for attorneys to work across practice areas and seniority levels, thus allowing mentoring relationships to develop naturally within the firm.

The more a firm is able to assist its attorneys in identifying pro bono work that achieves these goals, the more likely it is that the program will be a lasting success. An important aspect of a successful program is that its structure accommodates a broad range of attorney interests so that any attorney who wants to become involved can play a meaningful role. Firms can rely on clearinghouse-type organizations to provide opportunities to their attorneys. Firms can also develop relationships with certain organizations that provide a steady stream of work, either through referrals of individual clients or through work related to the mission of the organization itself. By establishing lasting relationships with these organizations, attorneys can develop significant expertise on specific types of issues or matters.

There are synergies between pro bono work, on the one hand, and recruiting, attorney development and client relations on the other. It is important to law students, potential lateral candidates and clients that a firm has a vibrant pro bono practice and is a good corporate citizen. Doing pro bono and community service work enables a firm to recruit similar-minded candidates and develop business relationships with clients on a more personal level. By embracing pro bono and community service as integral to attracting top talent and deepening client relationships, law firms can do good things in their communities while at the same time becoming more successful.

Pro bono programs can only develop if they are based on a solid foundation. The firm must be committed to provide pro bono clients with excellent and compassionate service. In order to do this, pro bono work should be prioritized and well-supervised by senior attorneys. All attorneys should understand that it is the firm―not any individual attorneys―that is undertaking to represent the pro bono client. The firm must carefully assess whether a pro bono matter is appropriate to be handled by the firm, both from the perspective of whether the firm has the expertise to handle the matter and from the perspective of whether it is the type of matter that will achieve the firm’s pro bono objectives, regardless of whether the individual attorneys working on the matter leave the firm after the firm takes on the engagement.

Each law firm must assess its pro bono goals and develop a program that best reflects its firm culture and aligns with its business objectives. Doing this is a process, and not an event. It requires open communication between firm management and its attorneys so that the role that pro bono plays in the firm is clear and attorneys feel that their contributions are truly worthwhile.

Brian Moran is a senior attorney with Paul Hastings LLP and devotes his time primarily to commercial litigation and the firm’s pro bono program in its New York office. He can be reached by email at brianmoran@paulhastings.com.

 

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