Signs that a Law Firm Truly Values Pro Bono

By: Resident Blogger Jamila McCoy

There is a LOT going on these days with regard to social justice issues.  Maybe you told yourself before you went into law school that you would work a corporate law job for a few years to pay for your degree and then you would go back to trying to save the world.  Maybe you just want to do more with your law degree to help communities in need.  After working in Big Law for a several years, I realize how important it is to maintain an active pro bono practice if you want to transition to a public service career.  The key is to choose a firm that embraces pro bono (and doesn’t just tolerate it).  It is much easier to engage in pro bono when you are at a firm that values community service and encourages associates to participate.  The hard part is finding such a firm.  Almost all large firms mention pro bono on their websites and in their marketing materials, but any Big Law veteran can tell you that this marketing is often smoke and mirrors.

So how do you sift through the sales pitches to find a firm that is actually committed to pro bono?  Here are a few tips based on my experiences and observations at law firms:

1.  Look for firms that give full billable credit for pro bono hours, or at least have a high number of pro bono hours that count towards billable requirements.

It becomes very difficult to take on meaningful pro bono work if you are only permitted to credit 50 or 60 hours of your time to pro bono matters.  A high cap, like 100 or 200 hours helps, but an unlimited hours policy is a true indicator that a firm values pro bono work.

2.  Look for firms that have full time pro bono counsel (bonus points if this person is a partner!) or a pro bono department.

Firms that invest in an attorney who spends all of his or her time sourcing and working on pro bono matters do generally this because they want to encourage their associates and partners to engage in pro bono as well.  It helps to have a person at the firm who stresses the importance of pro bono work to management as well as assists and advocates on behalf of associates who engage in pro bono.

3.  Look for firms that sponsor a fellow or an externship with one or more nonprofit organizations or have partnerships with nonprofit organizations.

 Like hiring a full-time pro bono attorney, sponsoring an attorney who forgoes billable work to donate their time to a nonprofit organization is an institutional investment that demonstrates a commitment to community service.  Sometimes these programs are open to young attorneys who have just graduated from law school, but some firms save these opportunities for mid-career attorneys.  Participating in a fellowship or an externship is a great way to establish connections in the public interest sector.

4.  Look for firms that have signature projects or themes in pro bono work.

 Some firms have signature causes or projects, such as death penalty appeals, local government reform, even social media “revenge porn.”  If a firm advertises that it has a signature project, especially one, like a death penalty appeal, that requires a large amount of associate and partner time, it demonstrates that at least someone at the firm has a commitment to pro bono.

5.  Talk to current employees and alumni about their experiences with pro bono work at the firm.

 You should never consider joining a new firm without speaking to current and former associates!  Some firms advertise that they encourage pro bono, have pro bono fellowships and the like, but in reality the pressure is on to bill 2,600 hours at the expense of doing pro bono, or perhaps the firm advertises pro bono fellowships, but are likely to ask an associate to leave the firm after she participates in a program.  If pro bono matters to you, ask these questions early and often in the interview process or behind the scenes with other current or former associates.


“The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the positions of GWAC.”