Pro bono work increased during COVID as remote volunteering spread


Signage is seen outside of the American Bar Association (ABA) in Washington, DC, the United States, May 10, 2021. REUTERS / Andrew Kelly

  • The law firm’s pro bono hours hit an all-time high in 2020
  • Some busy lawyers do limited pro bono work

(Reuters) – The American Bar Association is putting the spotlight on pro bono attorneys and organizations during its annual Celebrate Pro Bono Week, October 24-30. ABA President Reginald Turner calls the need for honorary lawyers “enormous”.

But the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t slowed lawyers’ pro bono efforts. Instead, it might have sped them up.

According to the Pro Bono Institute, a national group that encourages firms and corporate legal departments to provide free legal services, the number of pro bono hours spent by law firm attorneys has hit a new high in 2020. Last year 123 companies attended the institute Pro Bono Challenge law firm worked together 5.4 million hours of free work, according to the institute’s latest report – compared to 5 million hours for 127 companies in 2019. (Figures for 2021 are not yet available.)

Lawyers got involved in volunteering during the pandemic, experts said, but the nature of that work has changed. Many legal services providers now offer their services remotely, making it easier for attorneys to attend, said Sharon Bashan, director at OneJustice, a network of legal aid providers in California.

“In a way, it was a compensation,” she said. “COVID showed us that a San Francisco attorney can volunteer time in a clinic in a rural California area.”

Pro Bono Net’s searchable list of pro bono opportunities has seen more than 24,000 visitors since the pandemic began in March 2020, according to Jeanne Ortiz, the organization’s pro bono and strategic initiatives manager. In contrast, the Guide attracted around 6,000 visitors in 2019.

Interest in pro bono work has also increased in individual jurisdictions. The DC Bar’s Pro Bono Center said this week that 65 law firms are one Record 1 million hours of pro bono work for local residents last year, up from 979,000 hours in 2019. The average number of annual pro bono hours among 9,328 volunteer lawyers was 91.

“DC attorneys have stepped up their commitment to their needy neighbors during the pandemic that hit colored communities particularly hard,” said Darryl Maxwell, acting executive director of the DC Bar Pro Bono Center.

While law firms have been busy with client work during the pandemic, lawyers are still taking time to meet their pro bono obligations, even if it means more short-term projects or clinics of limited scope, Bashan said.

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