Law Firms Find New Ways to Help Needy, for Free ; Because Many Firms Have More Nontrial Lawyers, It's Harder to Meet Pro Bono Targets. So Some Are Giving Time to Specific Groups, like Foster Kids

Article excerpt

Three years ago, with the economy booming and billable hours soaring, volunteerism among the lawyers at the large Minneapolis firm of Faegre & Benson was beginning to languish.

Senior partners, afraid a perception of big bucks coupled with small hearts would diminish their firm's stature in the community, decided it was time to get creative.

Instead of relying on traditional models, they focused the firm's pro bono efforts on a single program, JUSTice FOR KIDS, a local nonprofit that speeds placement of children languishing in foster homes.

The pro bono participation rate spiked to 92 percent - compared to less than a third of that in most firms - and more than 30 tax and real estate attorneys underwent specialized training so they could represent juveniles in court.

Faegre & Benson is not alone. The long-standing legal tradition of pro bono - or free legal service to those without the means to pay - is undergoing a broad transformation. While some firms may see the work as a burdensome obligation, others are involving more of their employees, in more innovative ways.

Shifts in the legal field and headlines about a pro bono decline prompted some of the changes. In the past, pro bono was the province of a law firm's litigators - trial attorneys with the courtroom experience and skills that nonprofits or battered wives needed to represent them.

But that model has broken down as large firms have grown to include hundreds of corporate attorneys who rarely see the inside of a courtroom. "It's a huge problem in the pro bono community. That is, a lot of attorneys feeling there are not projects appropriate for their expertise," says Peter Gilhuly, a partner with Latham & Watkins in Los Angeles and national chair of its pro bono committee.

Adding to the problem was the economic success of the '90s. The Pro Bono Institute sets the annual volunteer target at 3 percent of billable hours. For a prosperous firm like Faegre & Benson, that means the pro bono target soared from 16,000 hours in 1999 to 18,000 in 2000 and a projected 21,000 hours this year.

As a result, not every firm is keeping up. Last year American Lawyer magazine reported survey results that showed the average lawyer spent 36 hours in 1999 performing pro bono work versus 56 hours in 1992. …