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Mo’ dough, no pro bono?

Are law firms doing so well that they’ve stopped doing good?

That’s one response to a new survey of pro bono efforts among the nation’s 200 highest grossing law firms.

Of the 174 law firms participating in the AmericanLawyer.com survey, the law firm that saw the biggest drop in pro bono hours – international law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan – said it had its “best-ever year financially” in 2010, with revenue up 31 percent and profits per partner hitting a record $3.62 million. Its per-lawyer average for pro bono hours dropped 70 percent. A firm spokesman said firm lawyers had been “swamped with fee-paying work” during 2010.

Large law firms have led the way in institutionalizing a pro bono commitment, and many of them are losing ground, according to the survey. Average pro bono hours for lawyers at the nation’s top-grossing firms plummeted 8 percent in 2010 to their lowest level in three years, according to the survey. The current numbers reverse a decade of steady growth.

A number of the law firms on Virginia Lawyers Weekly’s Largest Law Firms list for 2011 show up on the survey, with pro bono scores that consider annual figures for the average pro bono hours per lawyer and the percentage of lawyers with more than 20 hours of pro bono work. Pro bono scores for all firms ranked in the survey ranged from 0 to 122.

Virginia’s top-ranked firm in the survey is Hunton & Williams, with a pro bono score of 76.9 and 74 percent of its lawyers doing 20-plus hours of pro bono work. Pro bono scores for other Virginia-based top firms from VLW’s Largest Law firms list include: Troutman Sanders LLP at 36.1, Williams Mullen at 28.9 and McGuireWoods LLP at 23.2.

Firms interviewed for the AmLaw story that accompanies the survey point out that law firms that shed lawyers and staff several years ago have been slow to beef up their ranks again, and bill-paying clients always will have priority over pro bono work.
By Deborah Elkins

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