DC law firms’ pro bono work reaches record — with room for improvement

.(Getty Images/iStockphoto/Natee Meepian)
The D.C. Bar estimates more than 80% of litigants in D.C. courts appear without a lawyer by their side, making the need for access to free legal advice one of its priorities.

In its annual survey of Washington’s largest law firms — this time around, 63, a number that often changes between reports due to mergers — the D.C. Bar said law firms in the District reported a record 967,626 hours of pro bono work in 2018, a 5.5% increase over 2017.

The D.C. Bar launched the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Initiative in 2001 to encourage D.C. law firms to devote a specific amount of time to pro bono legal services. That goal is 60 to 100 hours, or 3% to 5% of billable hours.

In 2018, law firms met that goal, with 4.9% of billable hours devoted to pro bono legal services.

Firms reported 81% of their attorneys performed pro bono work in 2018, up from 80% in 2017, with an average of 89 hours of pro bono work per attorney.

Of those pro bono hours, 67% went to individuals or organizations with limited means.

“Considering that the District of Columbia is home to both the highest concentration of lawyers in the nation, as well as extraordinary economic inequality, we stress that signatory firms must do more to focus pro bono efforts on serving those of limited means within our own city,” the D.C. Bar said in its annual report.

The D.C. Bar notes D.C. law firms are developing new innovations to encourage lawyers to do more pro bono work, and make legal aid more accessible to people who are unable to pay for legal help.

It specifically cites King & Spalding LLP, which, in 2018, launched a new virtual clinic to provide legal assistance to almost 200 Deferred Action for Children Arrivals (DACA) program recipients on a real-time, expedited basis.

The D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center said it recruits and trains attorneys to volunteer their services for more than 20,000 D.C. residents living in poverty, small businesses and local nonprofits.

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Jeff Clabaugh

Jeff Clabaugh has spent 20 years covering the Washington region's economy and financial markets for WTOP as part of a partnership with the Washington Business Journal, and officially joined the WTOP newsroom staff in January 2016.

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