Dallas is Anti-Pro Bono

Dallas attorneys don't like people who like the U2 frontman. Wait. That's not what pro bono means?

Dallas attorneys don't like poor people--at least, they don't like 'em as much as their colleagues in New York and Washington, D.C. That's just one way we're irresponsibly overselling this report released late yesterday by The American Lawyer, in which it found that the 200 largest-grossing law firms in the country are doing so-so when it comes to meeting minimal pro bono public service goals--meaning, ain't a lot of lawyers in the U.S. doing at least 20 hours of gratis work per annum. Oh, it's good in some places--Washington, D.C., for instance, where 67 percent of the attorneys at the firm Covington & Burling are donating 20-plus pro bono hours to people who need but can't afford their services; says AmLaw, the firm's averaging almost 138 pro bono hours per attorney across the firm, which is astounding. No wonder the place is ranked at the top of the AmLaw 200. Fact is, plenty of firms in D.C. and New York offer hours of service to the needy. In Dallas, though, not so much. In fact, the city ranks near the bottom of the list when it comes to pro bono work, and The American Lawyer offers the appropriate tsk-tsking while trying to figure out just what accounts for Dallas' "lowly score" and dismal showing on the list. It asks, in fact, what's wrong in Dallas? And the answer is...after the jump. --Robert Wilonsky

"'I just don't see [pro bono] as a real priority here,' says John Cohn, head of the pro bono committee at Dallas' Thompson & Knight. Among other things, he cites a local culture in which people are more inclined to do charitable work on their personal time through churches and religious organizations rather than through legal ones. Cohn says that lawyers in Dallas generally need to be prompted to do pro bono work, and that incentives have been slow to emerge. 'When I was an associate,' he says, 'I'd get a "Thanks, John" for doing a pro bono case"--but no billable hour credit.' Now, he notes, the firm at least gives such credit for pro bono, although only up to 25 hours, a number he says he'd like to see increase."

Of course, some attorneys take issue with the perception that they don't wanna give to the needy. John Reenen at Winstead Sechrest & Minick points to the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program operated by the Dallas Bar Association, which pitches its case (and cases) by insisting, "It's like billable hours for the soul." (Apparently, my grandmother works for the ad agency that came up with that guilt-inducing catchphrase.) Reenan, who heads his firm's pro bono committee, says the DVAP cases are "snatched up quickly" every week.

But the fact is, says Esther Lardent, president of the Pro Bono Institute at Georgetown University Law Center, Dallas attorneys aren't much interested in doing anything other than tending to business--and businesses. As AmLaw says: "Cities like Dallas came of age in the booming 1980s, and [Lardent] speculates that their firm culture grew out of a business-first ethos." She also says Dallas simply may not have enough pro bono organizations to demand the work.

"'If you look at New York or Washington, D.C., you see lots of pro bono feeder organizations, and some of that work is major impact work that takes tens of thousands of hours,' she says. 'Firms take their cues from the public interest community, and if all that's out there are five-hour uncontested divorces, it can create different expectations.'"