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Critically Evaluating Pro Bono Policies
Pro Bono Resources
The Vault Guide to Law Firm Pro Bono Programs (available through the Vault Career Insider at by clicking the “Guides” tab ) provides “the scoop” on pro bono efforts at the 100 largest law firms. Topics include leadership and structure, participation, evaluation, and compensation and management. Vault also ranks the top firms for pro bono. This site must be accessed through Yale’s VPN. Instructions are available here.
The American Lawyer magazine ranks law firm pro bono efforts each July. The rankings are available online in the “Surveys and Rankings” tab (this site must be accessed through Yale’s VPN. Instructions are available here). The National Law Journal's Pro Bono Hot List is also available through this site.
NALP provides information about law firm pro bono policies and practices via the NALP Directory. Click the “Pro Bono/Public Interest” tab to view the amount of pro bono participation on the part of associates, partners and other attorneys; the minimum number of pro bono hours requested by the firm; the types of pro bono leadership in place and more.
Chambers Associate includes pro bono as a category within each firm’s profile.
ABA Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge which lists those firms who have agreed to commit either 3% or 5% of their firm’s total billable hours to pro bono work. List is available via the Pro Bono Institute web site under “Projects” and directly here.
The Path to Pro Bono brochure published by The ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service.
Law firm descriptions of their pro bono work available on firm web sites.
Pro Bono Opportunities
There are many ways to explore pro bono work during the summer, including working for a firm that offers a sponsored split public interest summer. Participating firms allow summer associates to work part of the summer at the firm and the other part at a public interest organization, with the firm paying the entire summer’s salary. If you seek community focused, pro bono friendly firms, you should consider working with a firm that offers a sponsored summer program. See CDO’s brochure, Firms Sponsoring Split Public Interest Summer Programs, for a listing of firms that offer these opportunities.
The New York State Pro Bono Opportunities Guide is a list of pro bono programs created by The City Bar Justice Center, The New York State Bar Association, Pro Bono Net and Volunteers of Legal Service. The guide lists opportunities with bar associations, legal services and public interest organizations, and court and government programs.
Tips for Evaluating a Law Firm’s Commitment to Pro Bono Work
- Look at the breadth of the firm’s work.
Look at the number of lawyers doing pro bono and the number of hours per lawyer.
- Focus on the partner involvement.
In many firms, associates are more involved in pro bono work than partners. Partner involvement in pro bono is equally important. If partners are not committed, they will be less likely to support associates working on pro bono matters over paying client matters.
- Externship Opportunities
Don’t place too much importance on them. They are good opportunities for a few attorneys at the firm, but if that’s all the firm offers, it’s not enough.
- Look at the firm’s description.
Is it specific or general? Does it look like a marketing piece or is it substantive?
- Has the firm received accolades for its pro bono work?
Where do they rank in the American Lawyer and Vault pro bono rankings? Have there been articles about their work in the legal press?
- Do pro bono hours count as billable hours?
Do they count toward the firm’s minimal billable hours goal? If there are different salary tracks for different hour commitments at the firm, do pro bono hours count towards that commitment? Does the firm have a bonus system that is tied to hours? Do pro bono hours count towards that? Are pro bono cases really treated the same as other cases when assigning work?
- What are the types of pro bono work the firm has been involved in this year?
Ask this at an interview to find out how familiar attorneys are with pro bono cases. You will also learn the substance of the work being performed.
- Ask the interviewer if he/she has the chance to do much pro bono work.
The interviewer should be able to speak intelligently and knowledgeably about the pro bono work of the firm generally and about his/her own pro bono efforts.
- How does the firm get its pro bono work?
If the response is that you can do anything that you want, that may translate to “you’re on your own to find the work,” which isn’t easy to do.
- Ask who runs the pro bono program and how pro bono work is distributed.
Most firms serious about pro bono will have a pro bono coordinator or partner. Ask to talk to that person. Inquire about how pro bono work is distributed. Many firms circulate emails and/or memoranda to associates about potential pro bono opportunities while others assign project randomly. You may want a firm that handles the distribution of paying and pro bono cases in the same manner.
- Many firms’ pro bono programs focus on certain types of cases.
Be sure the firm will allow you to do the type of pro bono work that interests you.
- Does the firm have a written pro bono policy?
Ask for it.
- Ask at the interview, “Why did you come to this firm?” and “What is distinctive about this firm?
If no one mentions pro bono, you have to wonder about the firm’s commitment.
- How does pro bono factor into compensation, performance reviews, and partnership decisions?
Will your pro bono accomplishments be taken into account at review time? Are partners supervising your pro bono work expected to evaluate you in a similar manner as partners with whom you work on cases for paying clients?
- What resources are made available to attorneys who perform pro bono
Is training available? Are support staff permitted to work on pro bono cases?
-Updated July 2017