Does Pro Bono Work Pay For Big Law Firms?


Contrary to popular belief, (most) lawyers work extremely hard. Some routinely put in 70 or 80 hours per week, sacrificing time with their families and any semblance of a social life to deliver first-rate client service.

In return, (again, most) lawyers are highly compensated. How do they repay society for their professional success? By performing pro bono work for clients that can’t afford to pay full fees or are otherwise deserving of free or discounted legal services.

Pro Bono Work: What It Is

The Legal Dictionary defines pro bono work as “the designation given to the free legal work done by an attorney for indigent clients and religious, charitable, and other nonprofit entities.” In law, pro bono work is basically any professional services rendered at little to no cost to the client. As the definition implies, pro bono clients are typically those that can’t afford the full cost of an attorney. Pro bono work can be relatively straightforward, such as the creation and processing of business-formation or tax-related documents, or complex, such as the disposition of a major lawsuit or other legal action.

The American Bar Association, in concert with state bar associations and private legal aid groups, recruits and retains law firms and individual attorneys for pro bono work. The process is somewhat formalized, though there’s no set pro bono schedule or rotation that particular firms need to follow or coordinate around.

Why Pro Bono?

Although law firms are obligated by the legal profession’s code of ethics to perform pro bono work, no one holds a gun to lawyers’ heads and forces them to reduce or waive their fees. So why do attorneys willingly limit their billable hours by taking cases that don’t pay well (or at all)?

Books have been written on this topic, but the short answer is that pro bono work actually pays, albeit indirectly. First and foremost, major plaintiffs’ firms and securities fraud law practitioners like Robbins Geller donate hundreds of hours of their time because it’s the right thing to do: Someone needs to stand up for the rights of the less fortunate, and there are plenty of worthy causes out there to support.

Frankly, pro bono work is also a great way for law firms to promote themselves as active, compassionate members of their communities. While this isn’t naked self-promotion of the traditional sort, it certainly does serve to contrast firms that do lots of pro bono work with more self-centered outfits that couldn’t care less about the underserved. The fact that a huge firm like Robbins Geller, which has 10 U.S. offices and hundreds of attorneys on staff, conducts pro bono work is a measure of its leaders’ priorities.

Examples of Pro Bono Work

So what does pro bono work look like on the ground? It might include:

  • Helping charity organizations navigate tricky tax or employment issues that might otherwise stymie their already overworked staffs
  • Helping newcomers to the United States navigate the byzantine immigration process
  • Doing traditional legal work, such as securities fraud actions, for nonprofits or resource-poor clients

The list goes on. What’s your favorite example of pro bono legal work?