Pro Bono and the Death of the Billable Hour

How should we treat our pro bono hours? Traditionally, as an incentive and motivator for attorneys to participate in pro bono, the gold standard was for law firms to treat time spent on pro bono matters the same as time spent on billable matters. At firms with billable hour requirements, pro bono matters would count towards reaching hourly goals. However, we have recently seen a trend of firms of moving away from the billable hour as a tool to evaluate performance of attorneys by either minimizing their importance or doing away with billable hours altogether. For firms that are distancing themselves from this traditional practice, what other ways are there to engage and encourage their attorneys to do pro bono work?


Firm Culture and Messaging

Reaffirming the firm’s commitment and dedication to pro bono is a meaningful tool to engage attorneys. In addition to writing and speaking about the importance of pro bono and access to justice, it is critical that firm leaders visibly participate in pro bono in order to set an example and be positive role models.


Goals and Benchmarks

Firms should consider including pro bono participation in their professional milestones and benchmarks, especially as they transition from billable hours. Attorneys may find it difficult to adapt to more abstract evaluation methods when they can no longer quantify performance with objective means, such as billable hours. Requiring attorneys to set a pro bono goal to work towards provides a clear, concrete, and achievable aspiration. In addition, when attorneys are self-identifying performance areas for improvement, pro bono may be able to strategically fill identified gaps and help develop targeted skills and core competencies.


Supervision and Reviews

Attorney evaluations and reviews are critical measures of performance beyond objective hour requirements. Rigorous and constructive feedback ensures a high-quality work product while presenting opportunities for attorneys to receive credit and recognition for their work. Additionally, attorneys can evaluate their own performance based on the constructive comments they receive. Consider using pro bono professional staff and other pro bono leaders in the review process if they have knowledge of the attorney’s work. Self-evaluations should include questions about pro bono as well. These tactics allow attorneys to think deeply about their own performance, including their pro bono involvement, and how they are measuring up.



There are alternative methods for quantifying pro bono work beyond using billable hours as a measuring tool. Rather than counting hours, firms could set a record number of pro bono matters or encourage attorneys to devote a certain percentage of their time to pro bono. Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge ® signatories commit to contribute either 3 or 5 percent of their billable time to pro bono work. By joining the Challenge, your firm can institutionalize its firm-wide commitment to providing pro bono legal services to low-income and disadvantaged individuals and the organizations that serve them.  To learn how your firm can become a leader in law firm pro bono, please contact us.

The Law Firm Pro Bono Project is available to provided tailored assistance to firms in addressing these and other questions related to law firm pro bono. Please contact Elysse DeRita to schedule a confidential consultation or if you have any questions.


*Hat tip to PBI intern Madeline Jenks for her assistance with this post.