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Focus on billable work affects pro bono time

Updated 8/25/11 to correct number of cases Legal Services of Eastern Missouri closed in 2010.

Pro bono time took a hit in 2010 as law offices downsized and focused on billable hours, but it could have been much worse.

Lawyers from 10 of the highest-grossing law firms based in Missouri reported they logged more than 100,000 hours of free legal aid in 2010, according to Missouri Lawyers Weekly first pro bono survey.

Meanwhile, volunteer lawyers spent more hours helping civil legal service programs in St. Louis and Kansas City, where the state’s largest firms are based.

Bryan Cave and Shook, Hardy & Bacon  — the state’s largest firms by revenue — had the highest averages of pro bono hours per lawyer last year among Missouri-based firms, according to the survey. That ranking is based on firms’ total pro bono hours in U.S. offices and the firms’ full-time equivalent U.S. lawyers in 2010. SNR Denton, not based in Missouri, had the highest average, based on its offices in the state.

Lackluster financial times had some effect on firms’ ability to provide free legal services to those who can’t otherwise afford it. Pro bono average hours at some law firms in Missouri and across the country declined in 2010.

For instance, at least five of Missouri’s top-grossing law firms saw their average number of pro bono hours per firm attorney decline from 2009 to 2010, according to American Lawyer surveys. The publication calculates figures using headcount on Dec. 31.

Firms experiencing a drop in average pro bono hours include Bryan Cave, Thompson Coburn, Lathrop & Gage, Armstrong Teasdale and Polsinelli Shughart, according to survey results in The American Lawyer in the past two years.

Those changes in average pro bono hours include declines of 4 to 11 percentage points.

Shook, Hardy & Bacon logged the same average of pro bono hours, while Husch Blackwell increased its average, according to American Lawyer.

Still, considering that many of the largest firms saw their revenue decline or experienced only marginal revenue changes, the news could have been more sour.

Missouri legal services programs in Kansas City and St. Louis, which large law firms frequently partner with as part of their pro bono time, report that volunteer lawyers are providing more help.

At Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, volunteer lawyers closed 786 cases and provided 2,200 more pro bono hours from 2009 to 2010, according to figures provided by Jim Guest, the director of the volunteer lawyers program at LSEM.

Guest said part of the increase in hours is attributable to a program in which volunteer lawyers, many of them new lawyers, work at LSEM offices for 20 to 40 hours a week.

“The bottom line is that even if some law firms were experiencing financial distress at different times over the past few years, our pro bono partners [large firms, small firms, solo practitioners] continued to support and encourage pro bono services,” Guest said in an email.

Volunteer lawyers for Legal Aid of Western Missouri closed 427 classes last year, 14 less than in 2009, but the program’s total number of volunteers and their total hours increased, according to figures from Executive Director Gregg Lombardi. The figures are based on cases that are eligible for funding by Legal Services Corp.

The Pro Bono Institute, which surveys major law firms throughout the country, reports the total pro bono time major law firms donated fell last year from the record-breaking highs of 2008 and 2009. Still, last year’s pro bono time was the third-highest year on record at the institute.

This time around

Typically, pro bono work at big firms doesn’t diminish during a slumping economy because firms encourage lawyers to keep busy with pro bono hours and lawyers are aware of the heightened need, said Esther Lardent, the institute’s president. Indeed, as lawyers at major firms were contributing more pro bono hours than ever in 2008 and 2009, the economy was sinking.

During a recovery, Lardent says, firms typically donate fewer pro bono hours because they want to be available for billable hour work and they have lower headcounts after downsizing.

“In the period after the downturn, there is typically a drop as there was in 2010. And in the past, we’ve seen firms sort of shake it off,” she said.

But Lardent is uncertain about the direction of pro bono hours this time around. The past recession and subsequent recovery period haven’t been normal. As the markets have recently shown, there’s more uncertainty about the nation’s ability to recover fully and grow.

“People are just very, very worried that we’ve got some systemic problems that finally are going to impact client demand,” she said.

Also, she has expressed some uncertainty about whether the two record years during the recession were an anomaly or they were part of a natural upward trend. Firms laid off more people than they have in the past, haven’t hired as much and made substantial changes to their operations and compensation, she said.

Many law firms, including Missouri-based firms, are hiring fewer new associates, which may be affecting their total bono hours.

“So essentially what you’ve got is less leverage, less new people,” and while pro bono work just isn’t just for those new lawyers, she said, “they have been people who have taken on quite a bit of the pro bono work and they don’t exist anymore.”

Billable hours up

Firm leaders insist their commitment to providing free legal aid to the disadvantaged didn’t change, even if their average number of pro bono hours declined.

At Shook Hardy & Bacon, where average pro bono hours hasn’t dipped, the firm has been successful in making partners feel supported if they pick up a pro bono matter when their paying clients slow down, said Matt Keenan, chairman of the firm’s pro bono committee.

In the past two years, the firm has narrowed its pro bono case work, Keenan said. It doesn’t accept some cases it may have taken in the past, such as death penalty or free speech matters.

The majority of the firm’s pro bono work is now in children’s advocacy, such as adoptions, guardianships and juvenile delinquency cases.

Children’s advocacy cases tend not to be time consuming, he said. They can last 10 to 40 hours, he said. And they don’t require costly expenses such as expert witnesses and videotaped depositions.

“We’re doing more good for more people in a shorter amount time for less money,” Keenan said.

Bryan Cave’s average number of pro bono hours per attorney declined in 2010, likely due to more availability of billable hours work as well as reduced lawyer headcount, which means fewer people to work on pro bono matters and billable hours cases, said Ellen Bonacorsi, chairwoman of the firm’s pro bono committee. The firm had about a 10 percent drop in its attorney ranks from 2009 to 2010.

At Thompson Coburn, the firm’s average number of hours may have declined because particular pro bono projects ended in 2010 and fee-generating work is up, says Mark Kaltenrieder, the firm’s pro bono committee chair.

Billable hour work appeared to increase at Lathrop & Gage, and the firm had fewer new associates than in previous years, said David Vogel, the firm’s coordinator for pro bono work who also sits on the board of Legal Aid of Western Missouri.

“It’s unfortunate that might have taken a hit on pro bono,” Vogel said.

Patrick Kenny, co-chairman of Armstrong Teasdale’s pro bono committee, said he saw no evidence that economic conditions influenced any decline in average pro bono hours per attorney at the firm. He said the average pro bono hours can go up or down from year to year.

“There’s an ebb and flow in all work, in paying work, in pro bono work,” he said.

Polsinelli Shughart was created from a merger of two law firms in early 2009. The firm’s sudden growth from the merger and its new hires last year likely affected the firm’s average number of pro bono hours, which could explain a decline in average hours, said Troy Froderman, the firm’s pro bono committee chair.