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August 2021


The 2021 Law Firm Challenge Report: Breaking Records in Extraordinary Times

The 2021 PBI Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge® Report is out, and it was an unprecedented year for pro bono programs both with regard to challenges and results. The 2021 Challenge Report examines the pro bono performance of firms that are signatories to PBI’s Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge initiative during the 2020 calendar year – a year presenting great challenges to implementing pro bono in the face of COVID-19 and enormous demand for pro bono services to address needs stemming from a heightened interest in racial justice, as well as from COVID-19 and myriad other obstacles to access to justice. Signatories have committed to contribute three or five percent of their annual billable hours (or, at a few firms, 60 or 100 hours per attorney) to pro bono activities as defined by the Challenge, and report their performance to PBI’s Law Firm Pro Bono Project each year.

Firms reported performing a total of 5,410,723 hours of pro bono work in 2020.  A more than eight percent increase over the prior year, which in and of itself tied the record set in 2018.  These stellar results were accomplished with three less firms reporting than was the case for 2019.

Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge signatories also set other records with their pro bono work in 2020, including:

  • Most hours ever devoted to people of limited means – 3.7 million hours, representing 71 percent of all pro bono hours and crushing the Challenge’s 50 percent minimum goal for such work.
  • Pro bono work amounted to 4.2 percent of all billable hours in 2020, a 5 percent increase over the prior record.
  • Partner participation in pro bono hit an all-time high at 69 percent.

More Key Facts

  • The overall participation rate of attorneys in pro bono was higher than the previous year – 77.7 percent versus 76.3 percent. The percentage of associates participating in pro bono was 89 percent, just 1 percent below the record set in 2019.
  • The average pro bono hours per attorney was up 15 percent from last year at 69.2 – the second highest year on record.
  • Charitable giving per firm to legal service organizations providing pro bono services to individuals of limited means was up 4 percent from 2019 at $460,000 per reporting firm. Firms with 1,000 or more lawyers led in both giving per firm and giving per attorney once again.
  • The total number of attorneys participating in pro bono at reporting law firms was nearly 61,000, as was the case in the prior year.
  • Ninety-seven percent of responding firms provided pro bono legal services directly in response to the pandemic.
  • Ninety-four percent of responding firms indicated that they had adopted a new or renewed focus on racial justice in 2020. Many of the remaining firms reported racial justice was already a top priority prior to last year.

We thank and congratulate the Challenge signatories whose commitment to pro bono is positively reflected in this Report, and we look forward to firms demonstrating their continued commitment in 2021 as the legal industry responds to continuing crisis in access to justice. Read the full Report here. Interested in your firm becoming a Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge signatory? FIND OUT HOW.

2020 was a Challenging Year for In-House Pro Bono

Pro Bono Institute’s Corporate Pro Bono (CPBO) Project recently  released its 2021 report on the 2020 Corporate Pro Bono Challenge® data – 2021 CPBO Challenge Report: In-House Pro Bono in a Challenging Year. While 2020 produced banner results for signatories of the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge initiative, signatories to Corporate Pro Bono Challenge initiative faced challenges to pro bono engagement by lawyers and legal staff.

The Corporate Pro Bono Challenge initiative is a voluntary commitment by legal department leaders to an aspirational goal that 50 percent of legal department employees, including attorneys and staff, will participate in pro bono annually. The annual report analyzes pro bono participation of Corporate Pro Bono Challenge® signatories, but this year CPBO also examined how the extraordinary events of 2020 impacted in-house pro bono programs.

The Impact of the Pandemic was Far-reaching
The impact that 2020 has had on society, the world, and each of us individually, included challenges for in-house legal departments of companies with pro bono programs. In 2020, the average U.S. in-house lawyer pro bono participation rate for signatories to the CPBO Challenge initiative dropped below 50 percent for the first time since 2014, to 49 percent. The average U.S. in-house legal staff pro bono participation rate dropped to the lowest level since CPBO began issuing CPBO Challenge Reports, to 26 percent. Only 44 percent of responding departments in 2020 met the aspirational goal of at least 50 percent pro bono participation by U.S. lawyers, compared to 67 percent of responding departments in 2019.

Reasons for a Decline
The COVID-19 pandemic created extensive hardships for people around the globe.

  • In March of 2020, legal departments across the U.S. sent their employees to work from home, which meant conducting pro bono legal work from remote locations as well.
  • Some departments experienced furloughs or layoffs, leaving the remaining in-house counsel and staff with increased workloads.
  • Pressures further increased on working parents and caregivers with young children, remote learners, and unwell relatives at home.
  • A number of survey respondents expressed that some regular volunteers were unable to continue pro bono practice due to increased business demand and increased family responsibilities, while others experienced general fatigue with remote work.

These hardships may have been felt more acutely in certain industries. Not surprisingly, the Healthcare industry saw the steepest decline in pro bono participation, dropping from 72 percent participation in 2019 to 35 percent in 2020. Utilities showed another large drop in participation, from 84 percent in 2019 to 60 percent in 2020, while Food Products dropped from 66 percent to 55 percent.

Pulling Together in a Time of Multiple Crises
At the same time, many departments reported engaging in pro bono work directly in response to the COVID-19 and racial justice crises. In 2020, responding legal departments answered the call for pro bono legal services by helping small businesses and nonprofits apply for loans and address employment and other issues related to the pandemic; drafting wills for health care workers; working on eviction diversion and eviction defense; helping prisoners seeking compassionate release; assisting domestic violence survivors; holding virtual clinics on expungement, family law, and estate planning; and answering legal questions through online platforms.

Additionally, after the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many others by law enforcement or vigilante civilians, many corporations pledged money and action to support racial equity and tackle systemic racism. Many legal departments prioritized pro bono opportunities to further racial justice and serve marginalized communities. Some responding departments updated their pro bono policies to address racial justice issues, while others offered new pro bono opportunities in areas such as criminal justice, voting rights, economic empowerment, and in support of minority-owned businesses. Several respondents noted that racial justice and social justice are now pillars of their pro bono programs.

More Good News
While the rate of participation decreased in 2020, CPBO is encouraged that the reduction does not reflect a dampening of signatories’ commitment to pro bono. The development of new programs and the innovations that capitalized on remote platforms are truly encouraging and sustainable, supporting the growth of impactful in-house pro bono work in the coming years.

CPBO thanks the Chief Legal Officers and General Counsel who have signed their departments on to the Challenge and those who have sustained their department’s commitment, as well as the dedicated pro bono leaders without whom these programs would not exist, and the committed volunteers who increase access to justice by providing pro bono legal services.


PBI 2021 Gala Awards

O’Melveny & Myers LLP* is being honored with the PBI Pickering Award in recognition of the firm’s outstanding institutional commitment to pro bono and its robust pro bono practice.

Pro Bono at O’Melveny
From the beginnings of the firm, O’Melveny has channeled the creativity and passion of its lawyers into public interest efforts. Founder Henry O’Melveny, a prominent civic leader in Los Angeles at the turn of the twentieth century, played a leadership role in multiple institutions that served the public good. His example guided scion Jack O’Melveny, who in 1929 helped found the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, the oldest and largest provider of legal services in California.

The firm continues to build on that legacy.

O’Melveny’s robust and award-winning pro bono practice extends the firm’s commitment to exceptional client service to underrepresented members of society, tackling critical issues such as immigration, housing, women’s rights, foster care, education, veterans affairs, criminal justice reform, voting rights, and community building. O’Melveny’s pro bono clients—from military veterans to couples seeking marriage equality to nonprofits stitching together a social safety net—are as diverse as the communities the firm serves. And O’Melveny continues to challenge itself to do more.

Today the firm’s pro bono program operates under the leadership of a partner-in-charge of pro bono, a full-time managing counsel for public interest and pro bono services, and a full-time pro bono counsel, as well as designated pro bono partners in each office. To underscore O’Melveny’s commitment, all attorneys are encouraged to complete at least 50 hours of pro bono work annually, with a 20 hour minimum expectation, and all new lawyers are required to handle at least one pro bono engagement during their first year at the firm. Additionally, each pro bono hour is treated the same as “billable” hours for all purposes, including bonus consideration. In 2020, O’Melveny devoted approximately 99,062 hours to pro bono, with participation from over 94 percent of its attorneys.

The firm’s dedication to pro bono service and its willingness to pursue challenging, innovative, and ambitious matters make O’Melveny a most deserving recipient of the PBI 2021 John H. Pickering Award. READ MORE ABOUT O’MELVENY’S PRO BONO PROGRAM


CPBO Pro Bono Partner Awardee: McDonald’s Corporation** in partnership with Goldberg Kohn, Jenner & Block LLP*, and National Immigrant Justice Center for their extensive efforts in representing asylum seekers.

Since December 2015, McDonald’s Corporation has partnered with Jenner & Block, Goldberg Kohn, and the National Immigration Justice Center (NIJC) to represent asylum seekers escaping persecution and violence in their home countries.

Throughout the past five and a half years, volunteers from the legal department of McDonald’s have partnered with law firm volunteers from either Jenner & Block or Goldberg Kohn on approximately 20 cases referred by NIJC, working collaboratively to represent immigrants applying for asylum. Their work includes preparation of affidavits and expert affidavits, representation of victims at immigration interviews, and representation of individuals in immigration court.

McDonald’s lawyers and staff play a substantial role alongside their Jenner & Block or Goldberg Kohn teammates at each stage of the application process. By working together, the in-house and law firm lawyers and staff share resources and divide responsibilities, which can include many hours of detail-oriented work, such as interviewing the client, drafting the client’s affidavit, reviewing medical and police reports, gathering personal statements from the client’s relatives, meeting with expert witnesses, and preparing for immigration court hearings. NIJC provides essential guidance and assistance to the pro bono volunteers throughout the process.

The partnership has obtained asylum for numerous individuals who are fleeing persecution and violence in their home countries, and seeking to create a new life for themselves and their families in the U.S. For example, they successfully obtained asylum status for a Muslim woman from Myanmar who had faced significant religious persecution in her home country. Muslims in Myanmar have endured significant persecution at the hands of the majority Buddhist population (including genocide against a particular subset of the Muslim community in Myanmar, the Rohingya). The client suffered numerous atrocities before coming to the U.S. by herself. Read more about this outstanding partnership.



CPBO Pro Bono Partner Awardee: Pfizer Inc.** in partnership with DLA Piper*† for their long-term partnership and ongoing work on sustainable projects with organizations around the globe.

Pfizer Inc. and DLA Piper have built a dedicated pro bono partnership over the past 15 years. Together they have worked to create long-term, sustainable projects to expand access to justice, and those efforts have remained strong throughout the pandemic, including expansion into new initiatives and pro bono service models.

NYU Cancer Center Legal Health Clinic: In 2009, Pfizer began working with DLA Piper and the New York Legal Assistance Group to develop the NYU Cancer Center Legal Health Clinic to provide pro bono legal services to cancer patients. Pfizer and DLA Piper were the first corporate law department and law firm involved in this project. While the project grew to include other law firms, DLA Piper continued to take the lead. Pro bono lawyers assisted terminally ill patients in preparing simple estate documents, which can provide important peace of mind to clients. From 2009 through the first three months of 2020, a Pfizer lawyer staffed the clinic every month. NYLAG’s Julie Babayeva shared, “With Pfizer and DLA Piper’s leadership, we have been able to assist nearly 2,000 patients with more than 3,400 matters throughout our partnership, vastly improving the health and wellbeing of cancer patients and their families.”

Expanding Access to Justice: Pfizer first worked with the National Center for Access to Justice, Deloitte, and leading law firms in 2012 to create NCAJ’s groundbreaking Justice Index – a public ranking of the states based on their adoption of best policies for access to justice.  In 2019, Pfizer, DLA Piper, Deloitte led NCAJ’s national Civil Legal Aid Attorney Count – a key part of the Justice Index offering the most complete look at the number of civil legal aid lawyers in the country. The Count, and the other expanded and updated Justice Index findings, are a critical resource used by advocates to strengthen civil legal aid and to secure better policies for access to justice across the country.

Training the Next Generation of Lawyers in Zambia: In 2018, Pfizer began working with New Perimeter, DLA Piper’s nonprofit affiliate, to provide a week-long legal writing program to over 100 students at the University of Zambia Law School (UNZA). Due to severe resource shortages, UNZA is not able to provide the small group, intensive legal writing and analysis training that is so critical to new lawyers. The program fills a training gap in a country where there is approximately one lawyer to serve every 13,000 Zambians. Because of the pandemic, New Perimeter and Pfizer transitioned to a remote model in 2020, training 70 LLM students in legal writing and analysis. Because the training went well, UNZA has engaged Pfizer and New Perimeter to provide the training to a new cohort of students in August 2021.

Representing Immigrant Children: In 2019, Pfizer, DLA Piper, and Kids In Need of Defense (KIND) organized a legal clinic to assist immigrant children, many of whom crossed the U.S.-Mexico border alone in search of safety and a chance for a better life. DLA Piper and Pfizer took on full representation of several children eligible to apply for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), a form of immigration relief that provides a pathway to U.S. citizenship. Pfizer and DLA Piper lawyers displayed flexibility and innovation during the pandemic, tailoring client communications and virtual meetings while remaining current on the constantly changing court and agency rules related to filings and appearances.


Celebrating our 25th

PBI is looking back throughout the year on the great moments in our history, in celebration of our 25th Anniversary. Let’s take a look at the first CPBO Partner awardee and the first Pickering awardee.

PBI presented its first CPBO Pro Bono Partner Award in 2003 to Abbott Laboratories** with Baker & McKenzie*† and Midwest Immigrant & Human Rights Center (AMIHRC), in recognition of their partnership to help Chicago-area immigrants to become naturalized U.S. citizens. The CPBO Advisory Board selected the winning pro bono partnership based on such criteria as demonstrated impact on a program’s community/target group, substantial involvement by in-house and law firm lawyers, and innovative substantive or structural approaches to the program.

In 2005, PBI presented WilmerHale*† with its inaugural John H. Pickering Award for the firm’s extraordinary pro bono culture and exceptional commitment to pro bono legal assistance. The award was named after John Pickering, the co-founder of the firm Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, which later merged with Hale & Dorr to become WilmerHale and has been a longstanding champion in pro bono and access to justice. WilmerHale’s commitment to to pro bono ranged from cases before the U.S. Supreme Court that impacted the nation to litigation on behalf of individuals who were unable to access fundamental needs such as housing, adequate medical care, and protection from abuse and exploitation.

COVID-19’s Impact on Small Business

From the first U.S. COVID-19 case on January 20, 2020 to May 5, 2021, the number of open small businesses decreased by 33.8 percent in the United States. However, the national percentage doesn’t tell the full story: small business closures have disproportionally affected certain states, economic sectors, and minority groups. What can you do to support small businesses or help through pro bono? READ MORE IN OUR LATEST BLOG

Renters Facing Eviction without Representation

Over the past few years there has been action at the local level and increasingly at the state level to implement the right to counsel in eviction cases. Now it has occurred against the backdrop of COVID-19, at a time when many low-income renters were unable to work and faced the threat of being evicted during a global pandemic. Now more than ever, it is important that pro bono attorneys get involved so that renters have a fair opportunity to make their case before being forced from their home. FIND OUT MORE IN OUR LATEST BLOG

Have You Heard?

Our latest podcast on the DOJ’s Office for Access to Justice?

There have been a number of exciting announcements on relaunching some of the work of the former Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Office for Access to Justice. Listen to our latest podcast episode featuring former DOJ Office for Access to Justice leadership, Tony West, Karen Lash, and Maha Jweied as they discuss the Office’s impact, initiatives, and what’s on the horizon for the Office for Access to Justice and the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable (LAIR).

Calling All Great Ideas

As part of our efforts to keep the PBI Annual Conference fresh, informative, and exciting, we welcome your proposals for concurrent and plenary sessions. We especially encourage you to submit ideas for workshops, small group discussions, and other interactive programs that will make the most of our ability to gather in person again. By presenting a session at the Annual Conference you can elevate your voice and show your expertise on this national stage!


* denotes a Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge® signatory
** denotes a Corporate Pro Bono Challenge® signatory
† denotes a Law Firm Pro Bono Project® member