The PBEye

Pro Bono As We See It
January 13, 2011

Pro Bono Awards-Is Less More?

Here at The PBEye we love pro bono awards.  The Pro Bono Institute itself presents two (and on special occasions three) awards each year that recognize extraordinary achievement in pro bono, and we devote considerable time and effort to selecting those recipients.   However, the recent proliferation of pro bono awards and what often amounts to the seeming lack of standards of performance that render pro bono work notable raises the issue of whether we are devaluing the meaning and impact of pro bono.

For those who closely track pro bono trends, the sheer number of awards, given by public interest/pro bono groups, bar associations, law firms, and others, feels somewhat numbing.  It sometimes feels as though hundreds of lawyers and legal institutions will be honored in the time it takes to read this blog entry (wink, wink). But the fast-growing number of awards is not the real problem.

Pro bono awards serve two important and useful functions.  First, they acknowledge those who have gone above and beyond in their pro bono work — and by doing so, they inspire others to do the same.  Second, they are symbolic in nature, sending a broader message.  Honoring a law firm that represents a Guantanamo detainee or a legal department that focuses on legal assistance to immigrants facing detention underscores the importance and feasibility of undertaking controversial pro bono matters.  Recognizing a lawyer whose efforts resulted in hundreds of new units of affordable housing reminds us that pro bono is more than litigation. 

What message, then, are we sending when we honor a law firm for contributing ten hours per lawyer annually, when the industry gold standard for large law firms, the Pro Bono Institute’s Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge ®  sets the bar at 60 or 100 hours per lawyer — with many leading pro bono firms averaging close to 200 hours per lawyer each year?  Is a bar association that gives awards to lawyers for staffing one advice clinic truly exceptional service?  (As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up!)  Obviously, not all lawyers or legal institutions should be held to the same standard of great pro bono achievement.  A hard-pressed solo practitioner or a brand new legal department project cannot accomplish what a mature law firm pro bono program does.  And, of course, while hours are important they don’t tell the whole pro bono story. (It should be noted, however, that there are some good awards programs out there, including the National Law Journal‘s awards, which we highlighted here.)

Can’t we agree, however, that a thoughtful standard that is a stretch goal should be the basis for awards and that inclusion is less important than recognizing the very best?  When it comes to pro bono awards, is more really more?  What do you think?