By Todd Cohen
GREENSBORO, N.C. — When the North Carolina State Bar was considering a new rule for professional conduct, adopted two years ago, that calls on every lawyer in the state to “aspire” to contribute at least 50 hours of pro-bono work a year, Ed Winslow opposed the idea.
And before the Greensboro Bar Association last year launched the Herbert Falk Society to recognize lawyers who contribute over 75 pro-bono hours a year, Winslow, then the association’s president, voted against the program.
“The nature of public service would be you don’t do it for credit, you do it because it’s part of being a professional, a part of your identity,” says Winslow, managing partner in the Greensboro office of Brooks Pierce.
The approach favored by Winslow – that lawyers should volunteer because it is their responsibility, not because it is required – seems to be effective.
Brooks Pierce, which employs 90 lawyers, including 60 in North Carolina, recently was honored by publication Benchmark Litigation as “pro-bono firm of the year” in a 14-state region in the South.
With the damaged economy creating a lot of legal problems among people who cannot afford legal services, demand for pro-bono legal work is growing, says Al Wallis, executive director of the Brown Rudnick Center for the Public Interest in Boston and co-president of the Association of Pro Bono Counsel, a national group that supports pro-bono work at commercial law firms.
After the economy collapsed in 2008 and law firms were eliminating positions or delaying the hiring of new associates, he says, many firms gave stipends to prospective associates to work for public-interest groups, and encouraged their own lawyers to do pro-bono work.
That experience, he says, has reinforced the business value of pro-bono work as a way to develop professional skills and relationships with nonprofits and other pro-bono lawyers that otherwise might not have developed.
Roughly 80 to 90 firms in the U.S. employ someone who spends half their time or more coordinating pro-bono work, says Wallis, whose firm, Brown Rundick, gives every one of its roughly 89 associates billable-hours credit for at least 50 to 100 hours of pro-bono work, based on their billable hours from the previous year.
Partners also are encouraged to engage in pro-bono work.
According to the Pro Bono Institute, lawyers at 138 large law firms that participated in the organization’s Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge in 2010 completed a total of over 4.45 million hours of pro-bono work.
The economic downturn also has resulted in cuts in government support for Legal Aid of North Carolina, cuts that have made pro-bono work by private lawyers “much more critical,” says George R. Hausen Jr., the organization’s executive director.
The statewide group, which operates 20 offices, down from 24 a year ago, last year instituted a pro-bono project that already has recruited 500 lawyers, mainly in partnership with the North Carolina Bar Association, bringing Legal Aid’s pro-bono roster to 2,500 lawyers.
Kilpatrick Townsend, a national firm that employs over 100 lawyers in North Carolina, including 60 in Winston-Salem, 30 in Raleigh and 12 in Charlotte, requires every lawyer to perform at least 30 hours of pro-bono work a year.
“We expect more, and people do more,” says Debbie Segal, the firm’s Atlanta-based pro-bono partner.
The firm’s lawyers last year contributed 30,625 hours of pro-bono work valued at $12.5 million, based on the number of hours they worked and their billable rates.
The firm focuses its pro-bono work on the needs of low-income people, organizations that serve them, small community groups and nonprofits, and human rights, civil rights and environmental issues.
Ten years ago, for example, Segal worked with the Legal Aid Society of Northwest North Carolina, which now is part of Legal Aid of North Carolina, and with district court judges in Forsyth County, to create a guardian ad litem program for the county that would train lawyers to represent the best interests of children whose parents were disputing custody.
The firm continues to partner with that program, which now is part of the Children’s Law Center.
And in North Carolina and Georgia, the firm created a “grandparent-adoption” program, representing low-income grandparents or other family members who are raising relatives’ children whose parents cannot care for them, a growing problem since the economy collapsed in 2008, Segal says.
Pro-bono efforts at Brooks Pierce include working with the North Carolina Bar Association to establish North Carolina Lawyers for Entrepreneurs Assistance Program, or NC LEAP, an effort that provides pro-bono legal services to low-wealth entrepreneurs.
And Winslow, on a pro-bono basis, provided legal counsel in the formation of the Foundation for the Greensboro Public Library, a client he still serves on a pro-bono basis.
Brooks Pierce is “very committed to the proposition that pro-bono and civic engagement is encouraged and supported,” says Winslow, “but it’s a matter of individual choice by individual professionals, and not something that the firm requires or incents in any tangible way.”