Pro Bono Hours Hit All-Time High During Pandemic

A report from the Pro Bono Institute shows that Amazon, food delivery and PPE manufacturers weren’t the only industries to set records during the pandemic.

The global COVID pandemic has not only changed how law firms around the world work – nearly instantly replacing such mainstays as three-piece suits, court appearances and client/lawyer meetings with pajamas, virtual appearances, and … pro bono work?

Lawyers have stepped up in an unprecedented and unexpected way to provide crucial pro bono services when they are needed most. Nearly all legal services providers offer at least a portion of their services remotely, making it easier for attorneys to participate.

“In some ways, it has been an equalizer,” Sharon Bashan, a director at OneJustice, a network of legal aid providers in California, said. “COVID has shown us that an attorney from San Francisco can volunteer their time at a clinic in a rural region of California.”

During 2020 (data for 2021 is still being collected) law firms tracked by the institute reported logging more than 5.4 million hours of free legal services — up from less than 5 million hours in 2019 — and 4 million hours in 2013.

The right to have representation by an attorney, regardless of your financial status, was established in America by Gideon v. Wainwright, in 1963. However, there is no such guarantee for “civil Gideon” representation in civil or family law cases. Combine that with a decades-long trimming of public funding of legal aid programs and it is easy to see where so many legal needs go unmet.

However, demand is just one of the reasons for the dramatic uptick in pro bono – not only in the United States but also globally. In addition to the pandemic forcing folks from their offices there are also several global refugee crises, straining immigration and naturalization attorneys, the continuous reduction of public-funding mechanisms where Great Britain, South Africa, Australia and the U.S. have all seen record-lows in funding for publicly funded legal-relief programs; the sudden emergence of refined and robust technologies allowing lawyers more flexibility in not only how, when and where they work but also how, when and where they give back, has fostered an atmosphere where pro bono works is flourishing.

While a perfect storm of lockdowns, demand and the emergence of innovative technology have pushed the rising tide of charity work higher in the past year; there has been a slower, decades-long philosophical shift pushing for a more defined and permanent place for pro bono in the global lexicon of what it means to practice law.

“The nature of pro bono work has evolved enormously over the last decade. Pro bono practices are much larger and often operate across multiple jurisdictions. Nicolas Patrick, Pro Bono Partner at DLA Piper said. “The work is increasingly complex, frequently connected to humanitarian emergencies and almost always requires strategic engagement with a range of stakeholders. The growth in pro bono partner roles directly reflects these trends.”

From 1990 -1999, there were only six dedicated pro bono partners globally. However, the Pro Bono Institute’s report also identified 66 examples of dedicated pro bono partners in more than 55 law firms. This illustrates the importance of this role in demonstrating a firm’s commitment to providing pro bono work and access to justice, its desire to show leadership and best practice in this area and a growing recognition of the value such roles bring to the broader partnership.

The fact that law firms are picking up this shortfall and the importance that they place on it within their firms (weather in pajamas or suits) is clearly shown by the increasing numbers of pro bono partners being appointed. There are also more personal reasons.

“There’s a passion for doing the work,” Patrick added. “There’s a recognition that, as lawyers, we have unique skills that can aid the communities in which we live and work, and that certainly drives many lawyers.”

Scott Cummings, a professor of law at the UCLA School of Law, who studies pro bono and public interest law, points out that this rise in pro bono also coincides with increasing discussion of legal ethics.

“Professionalism in the sense of advancing the public good gets expressed through a commitment to doing pro bono work,” he said.

However, there is also a deeper discontent with the legal services industry where the division between pro bono practice and commercial work allows lawyers to compartmentalize their public and private identities—making pro bono work somewhat of an apology for the public service they’re often unable to incorporate into their professional life.

“There’s two faces to all these things,” Cummings added. “In one sense, it is all one big apology, and in another way, it is an expression of people’s deeply felt commitments to actually do something good with their professional skills. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. I think these things are happening at the same time, and you have to kind of embrace the good, and try to harness the good, and use it to its best effect.”

Tie it together with the lack of civil Gideon guarantees, the expected uptick in divorce/family law needs and the fiscal strain felt by most of the U.S. and the ascent of pro bono work as a pillar of the legal profession appears to only be beginning.