Law firms give more attention to free help

By: - August 26, 2005 4:38 am

Raleigh News & Observer

By KARIN RIVES, Staff Writer

For as long as anyone can remember, lawyers have been providing free legal services to needy people and community groups.

Such work was typically squeezed in between other, revenue-generating cases, and few firms kept track of how much time was spent on pro bono cases. Increasingly, however, law firms in the Triangle and other parts of the country are waking up to the bigger opportunities that such volunteer work brings:

– Helps firms compete for top law school graduates, many of whom have been groomed by their professors to seek out pro bono work.

– Provides a tool for firms marketing their legal services to civic-minded, corporate clients.

– Brings personal satisfaction to lawyers, many of whom work long hours and face growing pressures to boost revenue for their firms.

The growing focus on pro bono work in larger private firms comes as funding for legal aid offices continues to shrink and more poor people go without legal help. That is also prompting many lawyers to go above and beyond.

"We are a humble backup to the legal aid folks," said Chris Graebe, a litigator in Womble & Carlyle Sandridge & Rice’s Triangle operation, which employs 90. "There is certainly a lot of unmet need out there."

The Winston-Salem-based firm, with 520 lawyers in four states and Washington, D.C., this month appointed one if its lawyers, Tripp Greason, full-time pro bono director. A number of firms with operations in North Carolina have done the same thing in recent years to increase their pro bono caseload. At least one firm, Atlanta-based Kilpatrick Stockton, has a partner dedicated to only pro bono work.

Graebe has spent an estimated 150 hours in the past helping low-income Raleigh residents with landlord problems, cases that have very little to do with his normal work representing large corporations such as the drug maker GlaxoSmithKline and Wachovia bank. By working for free, he is trying to bring more fairness to a system that, in his view, is now excluding a large portion of the population that can’t afford it.

But Graebe also acknowledged that pro bono work helps his firm.

"More and more, when corporations are seeking out law firms, they will ask about the firms’ commitment to pro bono," he said. "And the larger the client, and the more emphasis the client itself has on community work, the more likely it will be."

As they make free services a higher priority, some firms are requiring that their lawyers provide a minimum number of hours on pro bono work. Others keep closer tabs on the hours lawyers spend on pro bono work, with some counting such work toward their billable requirements to lessen the workload.

A report released this month by the American Bar Association, based on a survey of 1,100 lawyers nationwide, showed that two-thirds now provide free services on a pro bono basis. Each lawyer spent, on average, 77 hours in a year on such work — or nearly the equivalent of two 40-hour weeks.

While good for business, the main driver behind such an investment is a genuine desire by lawyers to help people, said Debbie Segal, the pro bono partner at Kilpatrick Stockton since 2001 and the immediate past chairwoman of the ABA’s standing committee on pro bono and public service.

"It’s difficult to get up with prospective clients without an organized program," she said. "We practice law in highrises where people who really need our help can’t get in the door. So we need to match up needy clients with prospective attorneys."

Segal spends her days soliciting and assigning pro bono cases to the firm’s 470 lawyers, carefully recording the number of hours they spend and the value of their work. Last year’s count: 26,558 hours, worth more than $7 million.

Free services were extended to grandparents seeking to adopt their grandchildren, elderly men and women who needed to write wills, low-income tenants trying to get their security deposits back, and 71 children in cases involving abuse, domestic violence or contested custody. Kilpatrick Stockton is based in Atlanta, and its Raleigh office employs 44 lawyers.

In her practice at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, Lisa Gordon focuses on representing health care providers and other corporations. She also squeezed in nearly 300 hours in the past three years representing mothers and fathers in Latin America and Europe whose children had been taken by a noncustodial parent to the United States. She received an award from the N.C. Bar Association this year for her efforts.

Nelson Mullins also employs a full-time pro bono coordinator. The firm of 350 lawyers is based in Columbia, S.C., but has 28 in Raleigh.

"Pro bono work brings another dimension to firms," Gordon said. "It brings them … [recognition] in ways they wouldn’t otherwise get. It’s not just about making money."

Still, time constraints are a concern for lawyers who are bending over backwards to get pro bono hours in. In the ABA survey, 69 percent said they didn’t have enough time for such cases.

That makes the push by firms to boost their pro bono portfolios a double-edged sword, said Stephen Smalley, a lawyer in the Raleigh office of Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart and a member of a pro bono committee for young lawyers at the N.C. Bar Association. Ogletree, Deakins, which\h is based in Atlanta, employs 285 lawyers, including 19 in Raleigh.

"They’re burning their candles at both ends," Smalley said. "At the same time, it’s rewarding on a personal level to be able to help people, who would not normally able to afford to, solve their legal problems. That makes up for some of the long hours."

One of his pro bono cases, involving a woman with immigration problems, lasted more than nine years and required out-of-state travel after Smalley moved from Washington to Raleigh. His best estimate of the number of hours spent on that case alone: 250.

Staff writer Karin Rives can be reached at 829-4521 or [email protected].

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066