NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Lawyers Doing Less Pro Bono Work for Poor

August 17, 2000

During the 1990s, law firms devoted decreasing amounts of time to representing poor clients, for which they receive no fee. Pro bono work has been an integral part of being a lawyer since the early days of the profession in ancient Rome. But lawyers today view it more as an act of charity, rather than a responsibility.

Many in the profession say they simply are too busy serving paying clients and they lack time to work for free.

  • The roughly 50,000 lawyers at the nation's 100 highest-grossing firms spent an average of just eight minutes a day on pro bono cases in 1999, according to a survey last month by American Lawyer magazine.
  • That works out to about 36 hours a year -- down significantly from 56 hours in 1992.
  • Although the American Bar Association urges lawyers to do at least 50 hours of pro bono work per year, only 18 of the 100 firms surveyed reported that their lawyers averaged that many hours in 1999 -- less than half the number seven years earlier.
  • In a survey of 142 law firms in Washington, D.C., earlier this year, a committee of the District of Columbia circuit court found that less than 25 percent of lawyers spent 50 hours or more representing clients who could not pay.

To pay for rising salaries, most law firms have raised the minimum number of hours lawyers are expected to bill clients. Yet they often do not count pro bono time until lawyers bill at least 2,000 hours in a given year.

One result is that lawyers who do pro bono work tend to pick cases that are short and easy, lest they become stuck with long-term commitments that may end up counting against them.

Source: Greg Winter, "Legal Firms Cutting Back on Free Services for Poor," New York Times, August 17, 2000.


Browse more articles on Government Issues