As pro bono opportunities have grown over the last few years, more and more local law firms are encouraging attorneys facing fewer billable hours to take advantage of the work. This is especially true for associates, who can use pro bono work to gain experience as well as build business partnerships for the firm.
Kelly L. Turenne joined the Real Estate group at Quarles & Brady last year and was loaned out to the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee to work on its Foreclosure Mediation Program this summer.
She accepted the position in part because of a slowdown in the real estate market, but also because she had done an externship with Legal Aid after she graduated from law school.
“All of my [pro bono] hours counted one-for-one, so there was no billable hour detriment,” she noted.
She said it was also nice to get some practical experience. Her efforts with the program led to the drafting of a local rule which requires that in every foreclosure action, notice of an available mediation program has to be served with the summons and complaint.
“Paying business is not usually what the end goal of this kind of work is,” Turenne observed. “It’s more about experience and being supportive of the community.”
Foley & Lardner currently gives billable hour credit of up to 100 hours per year for pro bono work done by associates.
Pro bono coordinator Bernard J. Bobber said that incentive, along with the potential to impress partners, has attracted more lawyers to these opportunities during the recession.
“In busy times, it’s hard … to ask attorneys to do something that doesn’t fit into their practice, but we’re finding now that some are getting trained in areas outside of their comfort zone,” he said.
For example, several associates on the transactional side have taken training sessions on guardian ad litum and asylum law, Bobber said.
“So you have people who are tax lawyers by day spending five or six hours training and working on an asylum case,” he said.
This year, Quarles “loaned out” 13 associates on a part-time to a variety of legal services providers it has partnered with in the past as part of its pro bono program. The firm’s national Pro Bono Coordinator, Michael J. Gonring, said the goal is for attorneys to gain hands-on experience rather than waiting for work to walk through the door.
This summer, associates spent three or four months and approximately 10 to 15 hours a week working on cases with entities like Legal Aid, Catholic Charities and the Milwaukee Justice Center.
“We want to keep them busy, but not out of the mix and available when billable work comes around,” Gonring said.
He said that 80 percent of the firm’s pro bono efforts are directed at poor clients, so there is no expectation that those efforts will lead to paying clients.
But Bobber said there is an opportunity for associates to forge business relationships which could lead to future work for the firm.
In one case, a first-year associate developed a pro bono referral project with Catholic Charities. The associate had an interest in asylum law and worked with an attorney at Catholic Charities to set up a system for Foley attorneys to take on pro bono cases in this area.
“This was the pro bono equivalent of finding a new client and developing a business relationship,” Bobber said. “So this is really something partners took notice of.”