Ideas from the Front

Marching Orders

Sometimes Promoting Pro Bono Takes Strong Leadership

Posted Apr 1, 2004 12:07 PM CDT
By Molly McDonough

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What the boss says goes. So when a firm’s managing partner signals that pro bono work is a core value, employees—from the paralegals to senior partners—take heed.

Holland & Knight rediscovered this truism when pro bono leaders realized their volunteer numbers were faltering. It was a new situation for the firm, which has always prided itself on a long tradition of pro bono. Aiding the effort is the 1,200-lawyer firm’s innovative Community Services Team, an entire department dedicated to pro bono that was established in 1990.

Over the years, pro bono participation by the firm’s lawyers rose and fell with the markets. It was during a downswing last year that managing partner Howell Mel­ton decided to intervene, via memo.

Now for most folks, a memo is not considered a powerful tool to motivate the troops. Steve Han­lon, the partner in charge of the Community Services Team since its inception, says that if he had written the memo, the response would have been dismissive, may­be something like, “He’s a nice guy.”

“When Howell writes the me­mo,” Hanlon argues, “those are marching orders.”

That’s certainly how the partners and associates responded.

Pro bono hours had dropped to about 35.6 per volunteer annually, hitting a low among partners of just 12 hours. After the memo went out last April, numbers shot up dramatically, hitting 44.7 hours. Even partners took notice, nearly quadrupling their volunteer hours to 44.

Melton says he wanted the memo to convey that he considers pro bono time—up to 100 hours annually—a core value at the firm to be treated the same as time spent on paying clients. “We in part measure our success based upon what we give back to those who could not otherwise afford access to the justice system,” he says.

Melton says the firmwide goal is to reach a 50-hour per attorney mark encouraged through ABA Model Rule 6.1, which provides that “every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay.” The rule further suggests that each lawyer “should aspire to render at least 50 hours of pro bono publico legal services per year.”

ACTIONS CAN WORK AS WELL AS WORDS

At Dorsey & Whitney, partners lead by example. in addition to employing a full-time pro bono staff to coordinate volunteer efforts, the firm’s top dogs visibly do pro bono work.

In the firm’s Minneapolis office, managing partner Peter S. Hendrixson attends a walk-in clinic, and veteran commercial litigator Thomas W. Tinkham has worked at his local legal aid clinic for 25 years.

But strong leadership can also come from below. At Pills­bury Winthrop, this takes the form of enthusiastic and energetic associates. One of them is third-year associate Seth D. Levy in the firm’s Los Angeles office. Levy, a member of the firm’s pro bono committee, takes it upon himself to make pro bono and public service projects easy and accessible for his colleagues.

Levy uses internal e-mail to pub­licize the top cases from or­ganizations needing legal help, and he provides lawyers with the resources to get the work done. Le­vy says he promotes “compact and discrete projects that they feel good about doing.”

“So many associates didn’t set out to have a job at a big firm,” he says. “They set out to save the world.” Levy helps them do that. His efforts and the efforts of the pro bono committee were so successful that they raised pro bono hours at the firm’s Los Angeles and Century City offices from a low 700 in 2001 to more than 4,000 in 2003.

Now the firm has added an annual awards program to build on the momentum and make clear that the firm leadership values volunteerism. Levy’s theory is that if you build an accessible pro bono program, “They will come.”

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